Lost in space: How NASA found a lost lunar spacecraft

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Credit: Reuters

Don't you just hate it when you lose something in orbit around the moon?

Silly question -- of course you do! Well, now thanks to a new technique, NASA is able to find spacecrafts, even quite small ones, that have been lost in space. But how can they do that?

In IT Blogwatch, we search the sky.

So what is going on? Rae Paoletta has some background:

Over the last few years, NASA has been having some real success locating wayward spacecraft...The agency has now done it again, locating an Indian spacecraft that lost contact with the Earth nearly eight years ago.

Cool. So what exactly did NASA find? David Szondy has that info:

Two unmanned probes lost in space have been located by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory...Too small to be seen with optical telescopes, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft were found by ground-based radar stations using a pioneering radar technique that could help in planning future missions to the Moon.

Was this hard to do, find lost spacecrafts? We let Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at JPL and principal investigator for the test project, tell us herself:

Finding LRO was relatively easy...we were working with the mission's navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located. Finding India's Chandrayaan-1 required...more detective work because the last contact with the spacecraft was in August of 2009.

Did anything else make Chandrayaan-1 difficult to find? I'm so glad you asked -- because the answer is yes. Faith Karimi explains:

Chandrayaan-1...is small -- about half the size of a smart car -- making its detection even more noteworthy.
While interplanetary radar has been used to see small asteroids...million miles from Earth, researchers were unsure it could detect an even smaller object as far away as the moon.
Such objects are especially a challenge to find because the moon is filled with regions with high gravitational pull that can...change a spacecraft's orbit.

And how, exactly, did NASA find it? Jaswin S. Singh has the details:

NASA's...230-foot antenna at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California was used to find Chandrayaan-1. It sent out a powerful beam of microwaves directed toward the moon. After that, the...330-foot Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia received the radar echoes that went back from the lunar orbit. Though the spacecraft was not initially found, it was after the team of scientists pointed the Goldstone and Green Bank at a location about 100 miles...above the moon's north pole.

So, this is all very cool, but why is it important? David Grossman fills us in:

The mission shows how various parts of NASA can work together, and the techniques used...will only be refined and perfected in the future. Each instance in which a derelict object in space needs to be found will most likely have unique circumstances, but as more and more people look to enter the Great Beyond, it's good to know systems are being built to identify all the junk.

So why did it take eight years to find one of these probes? Jonathan Jacobs has some insight:

I don't think calling AAA is going to help.
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