INDIA’S MAIDEN moon mission spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 has been found in deep space by a powerful earth-based interplanetary radar deployed by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, over seven years after all communication with the spacecraft was lost. According to scientists associated with Chandrayaan-1, the finding reveals the development of radar technologies that can even protect the earth from being struck by objects like asteroids.
Chandrayaan-1, which was launched on October 22, 2008, by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), got lost in space on August 29, 2009, after the power system on the spacecraft failed, ending all communication between ground station and the spacecraft. The spacecraft has now been found orbiting the moon by a powerful microwave interplanetary radar.
“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,” Marina Brozovic from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in statement on Friday.
“Finding the LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission’s navigators and had precise orbit data about 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 radar scientist said.
The interplanetary radar has found that Chandrayaan-1 is still circling some 200 km above the lunar surface. “There is practically no atmosphere around the moon to cause any drag on the spacecraft or cause its decay. Since it is in a vacuum it can fly in the same orbit for a very long time — up to 40 years. We lost contact after the power system failed but the spacecraft continues in its orbit,” said former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair who was involved with Chandrayaan-1.
“It is the laws of physics. The spacecraft will continue to go around the moon for a long time,” said another former ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan. According to Nair, the finding of the spacecraft in deep space by an Earth-based telescope deployed by NASA shows that “radar technologies have really advanced”. Earlier, radars could only detect a small object if it was around 500 km from the earth but NASA, which keeps a log of all space objects, has managed to peer deep into space, he said. “If there is an asteroid hurtling towards the Earth only a powerful microwave radar like the interplanetary radar used to spot Chandrayaan-1 can catch it early and help prepare for its arrival,” Nair said.
In finding Chandrayaan-1 in deep space, NASA’s interplanetary radar scientists have virtually spotted a 1.5 metre-sized cube travelling nearly 386,000 km from the earth. In other words, it is the equivalent of spotting a small car travelling 386,000 km away in deep space.
During its 315-day mission life in 2008-09, ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 reported finding water on the surface of the moon. The finding was made by the NASA-supported moon mineralogy mapper (M3), which was one of the 11 instruments on the spacecraft. Data from M3 was analysed by scientists from the Brown University in the US.