On Monday, NASA released the complete set of science data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera’s first six months of observations, consisting of more than 100,000 lunar images. Straight away, Phil Stooke from the University of Western Ontario began scanning the images to help find a “missing” Russian rover on the lunar surface, the Lunokhod 2. It didn’t take him long to discover the tracks left by the lunar sampler 37 years ago after it made a 35-kilometer trek. “The tracks were visible at once,” said Stooke.
UPDATE: It turns out the original image that showed what Dr. Stooke thought was the Lunokhod 2 rover’s location was not quite correct. Emily Lakdawalla posted a story about it on The Planetary Society Blog, and so I checked with Stooke. He replied: “After I posted my “discovery” Sasha Basilevsky, a veteran Russian planetary scientist, sent me and Emily an image – the one she put on her blog – which shows the true situation. My dark spot is a dark marking the rover made as it turned in place before heading out on one last short drive. That took it out beyond the edge of my image. That new image shows the rover as a bright spot. Yes, I concur with their interpretation. My spot was made by the rover but it’s not actually the rover itself.”
So, I have updated the image above to show the actual final resting spot. The black arrow shows the spot that Stooke originally thought was the rover, where the white arrow shows the real rover. The smaller white arrows point out the rover’s tracks. (end of update)
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And now that the images are readily available for anyone to see, who knows what you can find on the Moon?
Out-driving even the long-lasting Mars Exploration Rovers, the Lunokhod 2 made the longest journey any robotic rover has ever been driven on another celestial body. As soon as the NASA photos were released, scientists around the world, including Stooke, began work to locate the rover. Stooke set up a searchable image database and located the photograph he needed, among thousands of others.
“Knowing the history of the mission,” said Stooke, “it’s possible to trace the rover’s activities in fine detail. We can see where it measured the magnetic field, driving back and forth over the same route to improve the data. And we can also see where it drove into a small crater, and accidentally covered its heat radiator with soil as it struggled to get out again. That ultimately caused it to overheat and stop working. And the rover itself shows up as a dark spot right where it stopped.”
Stooke is not just an average, ordinary guy scanning through images and maps of the Moon. In 2007, he published a major reference book on lunar exploration entitled, “The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration.”
His new find of the rover means that older maps published by Russia will now need to be revised, Stooke said.
The Soviet Union successfully executed three robotic sample return missions as part of the Cold War competition with the United States. The first mission, Luna 16, returned a small sample (101 grams) from Mare Fecunditatis in September of 1970, a time between the US Apollo 12 and 14 manned landings. A year and half later, February 21, 1972, Luna 20 soft landed in the rugged highlands between Mare Fecunditatis and Mare Crisium. The next day a sample return capsule blasted off carrying 55 grams of lunar soil. The Luna 20 descent stage still sits silently on the Moon, clearly visible in this LROC image.
Below is the Luna 24, visible on the edge of a crater.