As the expression goes, it’s better late than never. That was certainly true earlier this week, as NASA made use of new and unusual technology to successfully spot a lost Indian spacecraft that had been missing for almost eight years.
Modern technology still has a hard time finding missing spacecraft and space junk, and it’s an even bigger challenge to spot such objects as they orbit the moon, Phys.org wrote in a report on the new discovery. Due to the brightness of the moon’s glare, conventional optical telescopes aren’t powerful enough to find these relatively small objects. But scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) were able to make use of a special type of interplanetary radar to find the Indian spacecraft known as Chandrayaan-1, a moon probe that had last been contacted almost eight years ago, and the space agency’s own Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is still active.
According to JPL radar scientist and principal investigator Marina Brozovic, it wasn’t too hard to find NASA’s LRO, but there were some challenges involved in scoping out the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1.
“We have been able to detect NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO] and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in lunar orbit with ground-based radar. Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission’s navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located. Finding India’s Chandrayaan-1 required a bit more detective work because the last contact with the spacecraft was in August of 2009.”
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Explaining the other challenges NASA’s team encountered while trying to search for the Indian spacecraft, Phys.org wrote that Chandrayaan-1 is a particularly small, cube-shaped craft, only measuring about five feet on each side. And it wasn’t sure at first whether the JPL researchers would be able to detect such a small object from such a faraway distance, even with the use of some of the world’s most powerful radar technologies. But with JPL wanting to test its unusual, recently-developed form of radar, the Indian craft was the perfect place to start.
Still, the experiments worked, and NASA was able to find Chandrayaan-1 where it had hoped to find it. According to Space.com, the Indian spacecraft was located approximately 125 miles above the moon’s surface, and was spotted despite lunar mountains and other “mass concentrations” having the potential to throw a spanner in the works and change the radar’s path.
Ryan Park, JPL’s manager of Solar System Dynamics, was quoted by Space.com as saying that he and his colleagues needed to make some changes from India’s original orbital estimates from eight years ago.
“It turns out that we needed to shift the location of Chandrayaan-1 by about 180 degrees, or half a cycle from the old orbital estimates from 2009. But otherwise, Chandrayaan-1’s orbit still had the shape and alignment that we expected.”
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The project started in earnest in July 2016, when the NASA JPL researchers used a 230-foot antenna located at the space agency’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California to send microwaves to the moon. After beaming these microwaves, they analyzed the radar “echoes” pinged back to Earth using a separate instrument, West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope. Other analyses were done by a third instrument, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico’s 1,000-foot-wide radar dish.
With NASA having spotted the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 and its own LRO, researchers are hoping that they could use the “interplanetary radar” technology for the benefit of future robotic and human moon missions. Specifically, they hope that the unusual, yet effective tech allows space agencies to assess the potential of collisions, and ensure the safety of spacecraft that may encounter problems with their navigation or communications systems.
[Featured Image by Anonymous/AP Images]