NASA’s New Technology Finds Lost Spacecraft in Lunar Orbit


Outer space is a limitless area and as such finding lost spacecrafts there is like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, it seems that this feat has been achieved by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Using the latest ground-based radar techniques, the scientists were able to locate two spacecrafts which were orbiting around the moon.

The Two Spacecrafts

The first one is the still active Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) from NASA, launched in 2009. This one was relatively easier to find using the radar technology as it was still active and the space agency did have data regarding its orbit, which in turn helped scientists to locate it.

The second spacecraft, however, proved to be a lot more difficult to locate. This one was the Chandrayaan-1 which was launched in 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The spacecraft has been defunct for almost eight years and JPL scientists did not have any data whatsoever regarding its current position when they began looking for it.

“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,” stated Marina Brozovic, who was the principal investigator for the test project at JPL.

The other aspect that proved to be challenging is the small size of the objects, which the scientists were looking for. While radar technology has been known to locate celestial bodies in distant galaxies as well, never before has it been tested to locate relatively smaller objects such as spacecrafts.

The Chandrayaan-1 for instance is just a cube which measures about 5 feet on each side. This made researchers uncertain whether they could locate it using the radar.

How The Researchers Located Chandrayaan-1

The team initially estimated what the position of the derelict spacecraft could be. Then they decided to send microwave beams towards the north pole of the moon using the antenna in the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex.

An object with the signature of the small orbiter crossed these signals. The researchers then listened to the echoes which were bounced back by the Chandrayaan-1 for three months, which finally confirmed that they had successfully located the small inactive spacecraft using the ground-based radar technique.

The application of this technology may indeed be useful for future missions, which are sent in space. The radar may assist in avoiding collision involving spacecrafts if they face communication and navigation issues.