It's nothing short of incredible to know that flags placed by astronauts on the moon are still flying after more than 40 years in space. The stunning proof was found in photos taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), and comes just on the heels of the anniversary of the first lunar landing.
The flag sites are small in the images, but show rotating shadows around the points where the flags are believed to be. There is one flag that is most certainly not standing, though: the first flag to be placed on the moon by Buzz Aldrin as he and Neil Armstrong made their "giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969, was reported by Aldrin to have been blown over as the Eagle lander lifted off the lunar surface. The LROC images also appear to support this theory.
One of LROC's principal investigators, Mark Robinson wrote about the discovery on the LROC Blog:
"From the LROC images it is now certain that the American flags are still standing and casting shadows at all of the sites, except Apollo 11. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin reported that the flag was blown over by the exhaust from the ascent engine during liftoff of Apollo 11, and it looks like he was correct!"
The subject of the flags' survival has been much researched and debated over the years. Scientist James Fincannon, of the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, created a comprehensive summary of the thinking in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. He noted:
"Intuitively, experts mostly think it highly unlikely the Apollo flags could have endured the 42 years of exposure to vacuum, about 500 temperature swings from 242 F during the day to -280 F during the night, micrometeorites, radiation and ultraviolet light, some thinking the flags have all but disintegrated under such an assault of the environment."
Now that the recent images from LROC seem to point to the five flags still standing, the question becomes what the nylon flags may look like having lived so long in such a harsh place. For instance, have the flags faded? Are they fully intact?
The flags were placed on the moon as symbols of the achievement of mankind making it there. They were ceremonial and not meant to show territorial rights, and as such they weren't really built with a mandate to last in space. Given that they were made of nylon provides an insight to the fact the intent was, at the time, largely for the cameras:
The LROC, which launched in June 2009, has been able to capture some amazing pictures of the lunar surface. Notably, it has been able to provide evidence that Apollo astronauts' boot prints still remain as it circles 15 miles over the surface of the moon.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has had its mission extended to Sept. 2012. That gives the LROC two more months of potential discoveries ahead.
Who knows? Maybe if we tweak it somehow it can give us a close up of those flags, and we can see just how well nylon has stood the test of time on the lunar surface!