As it turns out, the moon isn’t all alone up there quietly watching Earth spin on its axis. We aren’t referring to any type of alien presence, but NASA did find a lost spacecraft orbiting the moon, which is not as cool as the Lego figures orbiting Jupiter, but interesting nonetheless.
So, does that technically mean our lovely lunar neighbor has its own moon? Does a piece of space junk even count? These pressing questions need answers, but here’s what we know for sure.
As Gizmodo reports, some majorly intense detective work led NASA to the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1, which was used in India’s first lunar mission when it launched in 2008. The vehicle spent 10 months completing its missions and was never heard from again, until now.
“Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission’s navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located,” California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory radar scientist Marina Brozovic said of the U.S.’s still-active Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which launched in 2009. “Finding India’s Chandrayaan-1 required a bit more detective work because the last contact with the spacecraft was in August of 2009.”
Making the search even more challenging was the Chandrayaan-1’s small size. It measures about five feet on each side, or as the JPL describes it, “about half the size of a small car.” Then there was the matter of the 237,000 distance between Earth and the moon. Since scientists knew the spacecraft was in lunar orbit, so they utilized NASA’s 70-meter antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California to send microwave beams toward the moon in order to narrow down a specific location.
Using the echoes that bounced back from those beams, scientists were able to confirm Chandrayaan-1’s position after months of work. According to the JPL, this innovative use of interplanetary radar has not only proven useful for locating lost spacecraft, but may serve as a powerful tool for planning future moon missions.