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Lunar orbiter photographs Apollo landing sites

Not yet in its final orbit, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has snapped pictures of five Apollo landing sites, showing abandoned equipment and astronaut trails in the lunar dust.

Forty years after the Apollo 11 voyage to the moon, NASA released photographs from the new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft Friday showing five of the six Apollo landing sites. Shadows cast by the Apollo descent stages are clearly visible and in some cases, the moon walkers' paths can be seen in the disturbed dust.

The Apollo 11 landing site, photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The scene is 925 feet across. NASA

"We were very interested in getting our first peek at the lunar module descent stages just for the thrill - and to see how well the cameras had come into focus," Mark Robinson, principal investigator of the LRO's main camera, said in a statement. "Indeed, the images are fantastic and so is the focus."

The Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17 landing sites were photographed between July 11 and 15. The Apollo 12 landing site will be imaged during upcoming orbits.

The Apollo 14 landing site as seen by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA

Launched June 18, the Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter braked into an initially elliptical orbit around the moon on June 23. It eventually will be maneuvered into a circular 31-mile-high orbit, allowing it to photograph surface features - including the Apollo landing sites - with three times greater resolution than the pictures released Friday.

Equipped with seven state-of-the-art cameras and other instruments, LRO was built to look for suitable landing sites for future manned missions while creating the most detailed lunar atlas ever assembled.

The solar-powered spacecraft also will measure the solar and cosmic radiation that future lunar explorers will face and map out the surface topology, mineralogy, and chemical composition of Earth's nearest neighbor. One year will be spent scouting future landing sites followed by three years of purely scientific observations.