NASA Just Found a Lost Spacecraft Orbiting the Moon

Image: NASA
Image: NASA

Much like George Clooney in Gravity, sometimes, spacecrafts meet unfortunate fates—they get lost in space, and are almost always victims of the final frontier. But over the last few years, NASA has been having some real success locating wayward spacecraft, including its STEREO-B solar observer. The agency has now done it again, locating an Indian spacecraft that lost contact with the Earth nearly eight years ago.

Using a ground-based radar technique, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California were able to locate NASA’s still-active Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which launched in 2009, as well as the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1, which blasted off Earth in 2008. The latter, which was much more difficult to find due to its small size (about 5 feet on each side), had been considered lost.

“Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission’s navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located,” Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at JPL said in a statement. “Finding India’s Chandrayaan-1 required a bit more detective work because the last contact with the spacecraft was in August of 2009.”

India’s Chandrayaan-1. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
India’s Chandrayaan-1. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

First, the team at JPL used orbital estimates to make an educated guess at where Chandrayaan-1 might be, some 124 miles above the Moon and in a polar orbit. Then, NASA sent microwave beams toward the Moon’s north pole using the 230-foot antenna at its Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex to see if the spacecraft would cross paths with the radar. An object with the radar signature of a small spacecraft did, twice.

Over the next three months, the group listened to the radar “echoes” bounced back by the spacecraft, which were received by NASA’s 330-foot Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, along with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Because this ground-based method effectively re-discovered the tiny spacecraft, it could be enormously helpful for future lunar missions—even crewed ones.

Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first mission to the Moon. In its 10 months of activity between October 2008 and August 2009, the satellite completed all of its mission objectives, which included chemical and geological mapping. While the ultimate fate of the orbiters remains unknown, we hope it feels a little less alone in the vacuum of space. It’s cold out there.



Space Writer, Gizmodo

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It’s only still there because of its near polar orbit around the Moon. Had Chandrayaan been in a lower inclination orbit, the Moon would have killed it by now.

The Moon has a famously ‘lumpy’ (technical term folks) gravity field which tends to perturb orbits so much that the spacecraft eventually pile into the surface. The Moon’s gravity changes by up to 1/2% from location to location due to the presence of very high density lavas either forming the lunar seas or intruded into the Crust. Fly over one of these and the Moon pulls you closer, changing your orbit. Keep doing it and the Moon will pull you in.

It really caused problems for the later Apollo missions which deployed small lunar satellites. Apollo 16 placed PFS-2 into an elliptical 90-120km 2 hour orbit around the Moon, but the anomalies meant that within two weeks the probe was coming within 10km of the surface. It then became less elliptical, settling down to about 45km above the surface, but then the orbit changed again until PFS-2 crashed into the Moon only 35 days after being deployed.

The polar orbits (about 86 degrees to the equator) and a small number of other orbits are relatively stable around the Moon - they’re said to be ‘frozen’, but there is no way for instance of having a stable equatorial orbit close to the Moon without periodic boosts.