Space is big. There are so many things in it that professionals can't look at everything. It's in those gaps that amateurs explore outer space. Nasa-supported programs from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona even help amateurs explore the Moon and Mars by picking targets for cameras on Nasa spacecraft.
You can control a Nasa orbiter.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have several cameras on board that image the surfaces of those distant worlds. One of these is a narrow angle camera that takes very detailed pictures, but only along a narrow strip beneath the spacecraft’s orbit. These narrow angle images give planetary scientists unprecedented views of geological features from collapsed lava tubes on the Moon to drifting sand dunes on Mars.
But that detail comes at a price. The Moon and Mars are so big that the orbiters will run out of fuel long before they take high resolution images of the entire surface. Planetary scientists must compete for the limited number of images these spacecraft will be able to capture. Even with this competition, however, there are times when an orbiter doesn’t have much to do. It might be passing over areas that aren’t interesting to any scientists or the angle of the Sun might not be right for the kinds of images the scientists need. Rather than let that observing time go to waste, the university teams that developed the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LRoc) and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) decided that they would give that unused time to the public.
The LRoc Targeting Tool from Arizona State University and the HiWish program from the University of Arizona use interfaces similar to Google maps that let you zoom into areas of the Moon and Mars respectively. Find an area that looks interesting, mark the spot on the map, and submit the request. Within a few months your picture will appear in Nasa's Planetary Data System where you and any amateur or professional explorer can study that part of space.
OK, it isn't that easy. The science teams won't accept any request. They won’t take another picture of the Apollo 11 landing sight or the non-existent face on Mars. And they won't take a picture of a place that's already has a high-res image.
The HiWish program goes one step further by asking for a scientific justification. Don’t worry, you don’t need to write a PhD thesis. They just want to give you a taste of the steps the professionals must take to target the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Here’s what I did for my requests:
Shooting the Moon
For my request from the Lroc Targeting Tool, I chose a target area that crossed the north wall of the crater Reaumur. This is an area where the Rima Oppolzer crosses the ancient crater. The Rima Oppolzer is a rille - a 94 kilometer depression that may have formed when the Moon’s crust fell into the gaps between two fault lines. It is one of the last sections of the Reaumur-Rima Oppolzer intersection that the Lroc hasn’t imaged, so it was accepted as a target request.
For my request from the HiWish program, I chose an area of Noctis Labyrinthus. This is the fractured area where the Valle Marinaris transitions to the Tharsis uplands, the home of the planet’s giant shield volcanoes.
The area I requested has several intersecting features: valleys, mesas, rilles where the crust collapsed along fault lines, and pits. I chose “Sedimentary/Layering Processes” as the primary science theme to justify the request thinking that the view of the walls may show some record of the lava flows. I chose “Mass Wasting Processes” as the secondary science theme thinking that there may be signs of landslides within the pits or along the valley walls. The HiRise science team doesn't expect deep, insightful justifications. They just want to know that you've thought about your request within the context of the science the MRO makes possible.
Now I just have to wait. My request, like all the public requests, goes to the end of the line behind requests from professional scientists. But sooner or later the LRO and the MRO will pass over my target area at a time when they don't have anything better to do.
Then I'll have "my own" picture of other worlds. Amateur space exploration. It's real.