Scientists at NASA were able to locate NASA’s still-active Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which was launched back in 2009
A new technological application of interplanetary radar pioneered by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has successfully located spacecraft orbiting the moon, one active, and one dormant. This new technique could assist planners of future moon missions
According to Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at JPL said 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.
Moreover she told that 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.
The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft is very small, a cube about five feet (1.5 meters) on each side, about half the size of a smart car. Although the interplanetary radar has been used to observe small asteroids several million miles from Earth, researchers were not certain that an object of this smaller size as far away as the moon could be detected, even with the world’s most powerful radars. Chandrayaan-1 proved to be the perfect target in showing the capability of this technique.
In this process to find a spacecraft which was 237,000 miles (380,000 kilometers) away, JPL’s team used NASA’s 70-meter (230-foot) antenna at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California to send out a powerful beam of microwaves directed toward the moon. Then the radar echoes bounced back from lunar orbit were received by the 100-meter (330-foot) Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
Finding a derelict spacecraft at lunar distance that has not been tracked for years is tricky because the moon is riddled with mascons (i.e the regions with higher-than-average gravitational pull) that can dramatically affect a spacecraft’s orbit over time, and even cause it to have crashed into the moon. JPL’s orbital calculations indicated that Chandrayaan-1 is still circling some 124 miles (200 kilometers) above the lunar surface, but it was generally considered “lost.”
But as it was known that the spacecraft is in polar orbit around the moon, so the team took that fact into consideration and so it would always cross above the lunar poles on each orbit.
Then on 2nd July, 2016, the team pointed Goldstone and Green Bank at a location about 100 miles (160 kilometers) above the moon’s North Pole and waited to see if the lost spacecraft crossed the radar beam. Chandrayaan-1 was predicted to complete one orbit around the moon every two hours and 8 minutes.
During that something that had radar signature of a small spacecraft did cross the beam twice during four hours of observations, and the timings between detections matched the time it would take Chandrayaan-1 to complete one orbit and return to the same position above the moon’s pole.
The research team used data from the return signal to estimate its velocity and the distance to the target. This information was then used to update the orbital predictions for Chandrayaan-1.
According to Ryan Park, the manager of JPL’s Solar System Dynamics Group said that 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, who delivered the new orbit back to the radar team. But otherwise, Chandrayaan-1’s orbit still had the shape and alignment that we expected.
By working together, the large radar antennas at Goldstone, Arecibo and Green Bank demonstrated that they can detect and track even small spacecraft in lunar orbit.