Chandrayaan 1 – India's first unmanned mission to the moon – has been found, almost eight years after it went missing. The mission, which cost $79 million, was launched in 2008. In August 2009, it lost contact with the scientists at ISRO.
Now, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California have successfully located the spacecraft. The scientists used a new, ground-based radar technique to confirm that Chandrayaan is still circling some 200 kilometres above the lunar surface.
"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, Radar scientist at JPL 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," said Brozovic.
The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft is very small, a cube about 1.5 meters on each side - about half the size of a smart car. The mission was a major boost to India's space program, as India researched and developed its own technology in order to explore the Moon – a first for the nation.
Chandrayaan-1 was successfully inserted into lunar orbit on 8 November 2008. On 14 November 2008, the Moon Impact Probe separated from the Chandrayaan orbiter and struck the south pole in a controlled manner, making India the fourth country to place its flag on the Moon.
Since then, India has taken bold leaps in the world of space innovation. In 2014, India launched the homemade, Mars orbiter Mission, Mangalyan.
Analysing the soil collected by the impact probe, Indian scientists found evidence of the existence of water on the moon. The mission was expected to last for two years; however, after 312 days, it had to be closed, as the station lost track of the spacecraft on August 29, 2009.
While the interplanetary radar has been used to observe small asteroids several million miles from Earth, researchers were unsure if it would help effectively detect an object as small as Chandrayaan could be detected.
Chandrayaan-1 proved to be the perfect test for the system. To find a spacecraft 3,80,000 kilometres away, JPL's team used NASA's 70-metre antenna at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California to send out a powerful beam of microwaves directed towards the Moon.
Then the radar echoes that bounced back from lunar orbit were received by the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
Finding a derelict spacecraft at a nar distance that has not been tracked for years 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 have crashed into the Moon.
JPL's orbital calculations indicated that Chandrayaan-1 is still circling some 200 kilometres above the lunar surface, but it was generally considered "lost."
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