Fun Science · New Science

Spacecraft Lost for 8 Years Found Orbiting the Moon

It’s not uncommon for NASA to be in the dark. In fact, that’s the whole point. The darkness isn’t always a friend of space exploration, however. It’s pretty hard to see what’s going on up there, and plenty of spacecrafts (but thankfully no astronauts!) have been lost out there. Billions of pounds worth of equipment, gone.

Thankfully, NASA has been working tirelessly over the last few years to locate missing spacecrafts. In August 2016 they announced that the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories (STEREO-B) spacecraft has made contact after two long years of radio silence. The probe was tasked with observing solar phenomenon including coronal mass ejections, but unfortunately as NASA were testing a hard-reset function, the probe went silent.

Now NASA have done it again. The Indian craft, Chandrayaan-1, had been lost for nearly eight years. At only 5 square feet, the tiny craft was the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) first mission to the moon. In 2008 it was successfully launched, sending back a beautiful image of this place we call home.

earth_chandrayaan-1_flipped_lg
Earth as taken by Chandrayaan-1; the Northern coast of Australia can be seen peeking out from behind a swirling mass of clouds in the middle of the image. Image courtesy of ISRO.

Upon arrival at the moon Chandrayaan-1 began it’s two-year mission to map the chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic makeup of our rocky companion, at an orbit of 100km from the surface. After it successfully completed all of it’s scientific endeavours, Chandrayaan-1’s orbit was raised to 200km. 312 days into the mission, however, the craft went dark.

India’s space programme chairman Madhavan Nair suspected high levels of radiation may have interfered with power units supplying the communication tech, however information released in the months after the blackout suggest otherwise. It turns out the space agency under-estimated the temperatures around the moon; that shift from 100km to 200km was reportedly to get a better view of the surface, but ISROs T. K. Alex eventually revealed it was actually an attempt to cool the probe. Chandrayaan-1 had been slowly cooking for months on end. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, hopefully it didn’t feel a thing.

Locating a silent craft orbiting the moon is a difficult task, as the orbit can be extremely varied, and there is little to stop the craft from crashing into the surface. Calculations suggested this shouldn’t have happened, however, and new readings at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped to confirm the prediction. An object exhibiting a radar signature akin to that of a small spacecraft passed over the beam of NASAs interplanetary radar technology twice within a four hour window. The orbit of Chandrayaan-1 was predicted to be approximately 2 hours and 8 minutes. Multiple readings, alongside a bit of old-fashioned sleuthing, has now confirmed that the object orbiting the moon is in fact Chandrayaan-1. Sadly, there’s little to be done about the craft’s lone space flight. It still can’t talk to us, but at least we know it’s there.

 

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