Lunar Orbiter

Lunar Orbiter

Courtesy of NASA/NSSDC

Lunar Orbiter was a series of five successful unmanned missions (1966–1967) sent to the Moon to help select landing sites for the Apollo missions and to take the best-possible photographs of the lunar surface. Although not a mission goal, Lunar Orbiter 1 photographed Earth from space. Called “the picture of the century,” it was man’s first view of our whole planet. The Lunar Orbiter Earth images and the images taken by Apollo 8 got people thinking globally—how we all need to care for our beautiful planet Earth and its finite resources.

Five missions between August 10, 1966 and August 1, 1967

Five missions between August 14, 1966 and August 5, 1967 (Moon orbit)

End of Mission
Five missions between October 29, 1966 and January 31, 1968 (five missions deliberately crashed into Moon at mission’s end).

Survey possible landing sites for the Apollo missions and map the lunar surface using high-resolution cameras.

All five missions were successful, and 99% of the Moon was photographed with a resolution of 60 m or better. The first three Lunar Orbiter missions were dedicated to imaging 20 potential lunar-landing sites based on observations from Earth. These missions flew at low-inclination orbits. The fourth and fifth missions were devoted to broader scientific objectives and flew in high-altitude polar orbits. Lunar Orbiter 4 photographed the entire nearside and 95% of the farside, and Lunar Orbiter 5 completed the farside coverage and acquired at medium (20-m) and high (2-m) resolution.