Finding lost spacecrafts 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, has successfully located a spacecraft orbiting the moon - one active, and one dormant. This new technique could assist in the planning of future moon missions.
Scientists have been able to detect NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO] and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in lunar orbit with their ground-based radar. Finding LRO was relatively easy, as they 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.
The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft is very small, a cube about five feet (1.5 meters) on each side - about half the size of a smart car. Although the interplanetary radar has been used to observe small asteroids several million miles from Earth, researchers were not certain that an object this small, located as far away as the moon could be detected, even with the world’s most powerful radars. Chandrayaan-1 proved to be the perfect target for demonstrating the capability of this radar technique.
While all radars use microwaves, not all radar transmitters are created equal. The average police radar gun has an operational range of about one mile, while air traffic control radars have a range of about 60 miles. To find a spacecraft 237,000 miles (380,000 kilometers) away, JPL’s team used NASA's 70-meter (230-foot) antenna at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California to send out a powerful beam of microwaves directed toward the moon. Then the radar echoes bounced back from lunar orbit were received by the 100-meter (330-foot) Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
Finding a derelict spacecraft that has not been tracked for years at lunar distances is tricky because the moon is riddled with mascons (regions with higher-than-average gravitational pull) that can dramatically affect a spacecraft’s orbit over time, and even cause it to crash into the moon. JPL’s orbital calculations indicated that Chandrayaan-1 is still circling some 124 miles (200 kilometers) above the lunar surface, but it was generally considered “lost.”
However, with Chandrayaan-1, the radar team utilized the fact that this spacecraft is in a polar orbit around the moon, so it would always cross above the lunar poles on each orbit. So, on July 2, 2016, the team pointed Goldstone and Green Bank at a location about 100 miles (160 kilometers) above the moon’s north pole and waited to see if the lost spacecraft crossed the radar beam. Chandrayaan-1 was predicted to complete one orbit around the moon every two hours and 8 minutes. Something that had a radar signature of a small spacecraft did cross the beam twice during four hours of observations, and the timings between detections matched the time it would take Chandrayaan-1 to complete one orbit and return to the same position above the moon’s pole.
The team used data from the return signal to estimate its velocity and the distance to the target. This information was then used to update the orbital predictions for Chandrayaan-1. Scientists found that they needed to shift the location of Chandrayaan-1 by about 180 degrees, or half a cycle from the old orbital estimates from 2009. But otherwise, Chandrayaan-1’s orbit still had the shape and alignment that they expected.
Radar echoes from the spacecraft were obtained seven more times over three months and are in perfect agreement with the new orbital predictions. Some of the follow-up observations were done with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which has the most powerful astronomical radar system on Earth. Arecibo is operated by the National Science Foundation with funding from NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office for the radar capability.
Hunting down LRO and rediscovering Chandrayaan-1 have provided the start for a unique new capability. Working together, the large radar antennas at Goldstone, Arecibo and Green Bank demonstrated that they can detect and track even small spacecrafts in the lunar orbit. Ground-based radars could possibly play a part in future robotic and human missions to the moon, both for a collisional hazard assessment tool and as a safety mechanism for spacecraft that encounter navigation or communication issues.