Fates of failed spacecraft
Why all the focus on moon junk?
"There may be several kinds of value here," said Philip Stooke, associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. "One is a detective story," he said, stressing that images may help resolve the fates of failed spacecraft.
One good example is the Soviet Union's Luna 23, which made it to the moon and transmitted for several days in 1974 but failed to collect a sample and return it to Earth as planned.
"At the time people said it landed hard and damaged its sample drill. Now people are suggesting it fell on its side, and the LRO images seem to support that idea," Stooke said. "Did NASA's Surveyor 4 fail before or after landing? If we could find it, which has not been done as yet, we could distinguish between an intact lander and a debris field."
A second value has to do with protecting "heritage" sites, especially if the teams participating in the Google Lunar X Prize — which has spurred a privately funded robotic race to the moon — get to some of these sites, Stooke told SPACE.com.
"We already know plenty about the locations of Apollo spacecraft, but other targets might be difficult to find," Stooke said. "If somebody wanted to land near the former Soviet Union's Luna 9 they couldn't, because we don't know where it is."
"If the site could be found in LROC images," he added, "not only do we know where it is, but a heritage protection plan can be designed."
For example, the plan could call for touching down miles away, so a landing mishap wouldn't accidentally destroy an old spacecraft. A rover could then drive up to inspect the lander and its nearby descent stage, Stooke said.
"So that would apply to Surveyor 4 as well, and objects like India's Chandrayaan Moon Impact Probe near the south pole," he said.
Lastly, Stooke admitted to perhaps a selfish reason to look for lost mooncraft.
"It is because I'm a cartographer. It is satisfying simply to be able to put a point on a map and say, 'That's where it is.' Ultimately, whatever else happens in space exploration, we should be able to document this aspect of human endeavor in which we have invested so much," Stooke said.
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