A series of innovations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have led to new technology being implemented to the space agency’s interplanetary radar system. The new and improved technology is expected to help planners for future moon missions, as well as helping locate and identify missing spacecraft and debris. So far, the latter has seen some success. During an experimental run to test its’ capabilities, the radar was able to find two pre-determined targets orbiting around the moon.
Both spacecraft, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, were in different states. However, this didn’t affect the radar’s performance, as Radar Scientist Marina Brozovic explained to the press:
“We have been able to detect NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in lunar orbit with ground-based radar. 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.”
These findings have been especially important considering the size and location of these spacecraft, although the LRO was an easy test for the radar, the Chandrayaan proved to be more difficult. The Indian spacecraft is fairly small, a five foot cube, and was found orbiting just a hundred kilometres above the moon’s surface in a dormant state.
To find Chandrayaan the radar and its’ handlers needed to accurately gauge and calculate several variables including orbital predictions, velocity and gravitational pull. Over a period of several months, multiple readings were recorded and analysed, and with the help of the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico, as well as the antenna arrays at Goldstone and Green Bank, the team of scientists were successfully able to confirm the location of the lost craft.
The collaboration between NASA and these other observatories has shown that along with their latest ground-radar technology, anything is possible when it comes to locating and identifying spacecraft and other space debris. As aforementioned, such accuracy and reliability could go a long way in helping NASA plan for future space travel, with the space agency recently confirming that they have several space exploration projects in mind, including missions to the moon and Mars.