Last April, Tom Murphy – astrophysicist at the University of California San Diego – logged into one of his common observation sessions and aimed a telescope in a New Mexico’ observatory – Apache Point Observatory – at a specific point on the Moon to perform some experiments by firing a stream of laser pulses into the sky.

He expected having some results for his study, but what he did was to locate a lost Soviet moon rover that had been sent to moon 40 years ago. But there is more; this discovery will allow him and other astrophysicists to measure the moon’s movements and test theories of gravity with the greatest precision to date.

From IEEE Spectrum:

The pulses—20 per second—shot toward the moon and, after little more than a second, bathed the lunar dust patch in a pool of green light. Another second passed. Then Murphy saw a blip in the data on his screen. It suggested that an unusually large number of photons had returned from the moon and were being recorded by the telescope’s photodiode.

At first, Murphy thought the blip might just be an artifact of the instrumentation, a common disturbance caused by turning the detector on and off. But no matter how McMillan tweaked the instruments, the signal kept showing up. By the next morning after analyzing the data, he was sure the blip represented something much more significant: contact with the first robot to roam a surface beyond Earth. Until NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped photographs of the robot’s tracks earlier that month, no one had been able to locate the Soviet rover Lunokhod 1 for nearly four decades.

But the discovery has turned out to be more than a just a fun bit of space archaeology. Now that Murphy has confirmed the location of Lunokhod 1, he plans on using the aging rover to help measure the moon’s movements and test theories of gravity with the greatest precision to date.

Advertisements