Apollo 11 was the first mission to land people on the lunar surface. But Apollo relied on a lot of predecessor missions to lay the groundwork for the successful mission to the Moon. One of them was Apollo 10, the fourth crewed mission in the Apollo program.
Apollo 10 was an almost complete mission that including everything that Apollo 11 had, except for an actual landing on the Moon. It was a dress rehearsal, and was the second Apollo mission to orbit the Moon. It even had an Apollo Lunar Module that was flown to within 15 km of the lunar surface. But that module never landed, and eventually, after it rendezvoused with the command module and the crew disembarked, it was sent into orbit around the Sun.
And up until now, nobody knew where it was.
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The Lunar Lander from Apollo 10 had a nickname. It was called “Snoopy” after the dog in the Peanuts comic strip, by Charles Schulz. NASA thought that giving the lander and the command module names from the popular comic strip would help kids be interested in the mission. (The command module was called “Charlie Brown.”) Snoopy was sent off to orbit the Sun without another thought, and nobody thought to keep track of it.
Then in 2011, a group of amateur astronomers in the UK began looking for Snoopy. At the time, Universe Today covered the effort by amateur astronomer Nick Howes to search for Snoopy. He had some success under his belt already: he had organized an effort involving schools to find asteroids and comets with the Faulkes Telescope Project.
At that time, Howes and his team had an enormous area of space to search through, since orbital data from Apollo 10 was scarce. In 2011, Howes told Universe Today, “We’re expecting a search arc anywhere up to 135 million kilometres in size which is a huge amount of space to look at.”
Now, 8 years later, Howes thinks they’ve found Snoopy at long last.
A report on Sky News says that the team is almost certain they’ve found it. Or 98% certain, anyway. And if they have found it, they’ve beaten the 235 million to one odds of doing so. Very impressive effort.
In an interview with Newsweek, Howes said, “We are relatively confident <that we have located the module.> The heliocentric orbit looks good, the object is artificial, and the size is right.” Howes and his team aren’t certain yet, though. That will require more detailed observations, but Snoopy is too far away for that right now.
Howes stressed that some agency will have to get a better look at it before they can confirm that the object is Snoopy.
He also mused that someone like Elon Musk may have the wherewithal to retrieve it, at some point. You never know, but if Elon Musk followed every well-meaning suggestion, his calendar would be awfully full.
It remains to be seen if Snoopy has been found. If it has, then it’s a very intriguing development. And that’s not just because there’s a small chance of recovering it in the future. It’s because of history.
With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing coming up, it’s a good chance to look beyond that successful, historic mission, and to recognize all the effort that preceded it. Indeed, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 10 just came and went on May 22nd, when in 1969 Snoopy made its closest approach to the lunar surface. Imagine how crew members Eugene Cernan and Thomas Stafford felt coming so close to the Moon but not landing. (Cernan thought that NASA purposefully didn’t give them enough fuel, in case they were tempted.)
In the end, Howes is realistic about the likelihood of recovering Snoopy. At best, that would be a frivolous use of funds, though private citizens like Musk are free to spend their money as they see fit.
It’ll be about 18 years until Snoopy’s next close approach to Earth. A lot can happen in 18 years. Who knows? Maybe Snoopy will finally come home.
- Universe Today: The Mission to Find the Missing Lunar Module
- Smithsonian Mag: A Smithsonian Curator Reflects on Apollo 10, the Mission That Made the Moon Landing Possible
- Newsweek: NASA’s Snoopy Lunar Module That Has Been Lost In The Vastness Of Space For 50 Years May Have Been Found
- NASA: Apollo 10 Mission Page