NASA radar finds India's lost lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 orbiting the moon

Sriparna Ghosh

Finding derelict spacecraft and space debris in Earth's orbit can be a technological challenge. Detecting these objects in orbit around Earth's moon is even more difficult. Optical telescopes are unable to search for small objects hidden in the bright glare of the moon. However, a new technological application of interplanetary radar pioneered by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have found India's first lunar mission -- Chandrayaan-1 -- still orbiting moon.

The development comes almost eight years after Chandrayaan-1 stopped sending radio signals in August 2009 due to which Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was forced to declare the mission over.

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ISRO had lost communication with Chandrayaan-1 on August 29, 2009, within a year of its launch on October 22, 2008. According to NASA, Chandrayaan-1 is still above the lunar surface.

While it is considered a technical challenge to find such derelict spacecrafts and space debris in Earth's orbit, it is even more difficult 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.

As the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft is very small, a cube about 1.5 metres on each side, it is indeed an achievement for the interplanetary radar. The new technology has been used to observe small asteroids several million miles from Earth, but never such a small object at a distance as far as moon.

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According to researchers, Chandrayaan-1 proved to be the perfect target for demonstrating the capability of this technique. Apart from Chandrayaan-1, the scientists have also located NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around moon.

"We have been able to detect NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Indian Space Research Organisation's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in lunar orbit with ground-based radar," said Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and principal investigator for the test project.

"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," she added.

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