Lost Indian Spacecraft Found Through New Radar, Space Detective Work

Posted March 11, 2017

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) made a decision to "find" the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter to test some new tracking hardware that was being developed.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) had declared the mission terminated more than seven years ago.

While it is considered a technical challenge to find such derelict spacecrafts and space debris in Earth's orbit, it is even more hard to detect such spacecrafts and objects in moon's orbit, as the ability of the optical telescopes to find such small objects are hindered by the bright glare of the moon.

"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", NASA said in its report.

In finding Chandrayaan-1 in deep space, NASA's interplanetary radar scientists have virtually spotted a 1.5 metre-sized cube travelling almost 386,000 km from the earth.

First, the team at JPL used orbital estimates to make an educated guess at where Chandrayaan-1 might be, some 124 miles above the Moon and in a polar orbit. "Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission's navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located".

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Although the technique has been used before to observe small asteroids several million miles from Earth, researchers were not certain that the radar could detect an object the size of Chandrayaan-1, a small cube spacecraft about 1.5 meters on each side - about half the size of a smart vehicle - in orbit around the Moon.

Much like George Clooney in Gravity, sometimes, spacecrafts meet unfortunate fates-they get lost in space, and are nearly always victims of the final frontier.

The Chandrayaan-1 is a small spacecraft, shaped much like a cube, measuring 1.5 meters on each side.

NASA actually located two spacecraft using this new technique and ground-based radar. The orbiter was inserted into lunar orbit on 8 November 2008 and was expected to remain operational until at least 2010. The spacecraft's instrument readings yielded signatures of water molecules on the moon. All interplanetary radars use microwaves, but not all of them are developed equally. This new research technique based on the three terrestrial antennas should be mobilized in the future to evaluate the risks of collisions and to reinforce the security in the missions around the Moon. But otherwise, Chandrayaan-1's orbit still had the shape and alignment that we expected."Hunting down LRO and rediscovering Chandrayaan-1 have provided the start for a unique new capability".

Through calculations, the Chandrayaan-1 was known to be in an orbit taking it past both poles every two hours and eight minutes.