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Dude, there's my car!

  • 18 March 2010
  • Written by 
  • Published in Space

The long-lost Lunokhod-2 rover has been relocated using NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.  But there's far more to the story than that.

In 1973, Lunokhod-2 was sent to the Moon as a rather weak response to the American's Apollo missions.

Auspiciously, it managed to travel 37km across the surface during a period of 5 months before getting bogged in a crater.  No other man-made vehicle has travelled further on a foreign world.

It seems that the rover was being driven in real-time by remote control from an Earth station.  With the controllers relying on 'borrowed' Apollo orbiter photos.  Unfortunately, the detail wasn't quite good enough and they drove it into a crater.

Trying to get the rover out again, they coated the radiator in dust and the poor thing cooked itself.

The pity of course being that although Lunokhod-2 carried a laser-ranging reflector, scientists could determine the distance from earth very accurately, but not the location on the moon's surface with any certainty.

Fast forward a few years; the Soviet Union had broken up and Russia was a little short of cash.  In December 1993, they engaged Sotheby's to sell the rover (presumably on an "as-is-where-is" basis).

Who bought it?

Multimillionaire games developer (of Ultima) Richard Garriott bought it for $US68,500.

Garriott, aside from being a rich, famous games developer is also the son of Owen K Garriott who flew in Skylab in 1973 (oddly just after Lunokhod-2 blew up) and again in 1983 on Spacelab-1.

Garriott Jr was also one of the very few space tourists to visit the International Space Station (in 2008), making him the first second generation American astronaut.

So, Garriott owned a lunar rover, but he didn't really know where it was.  Incidentally, he also owns a genuine Russian Sputnik which was 'smuggled' into the US as 'salad bowls.'

Roll forward to yesterday and to researchers at The University of Western Ontario (UWO).

Earlier this week, NASA released a slew of images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Phil Stooke of UWO who recently published "The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration" seized upon the LRO images to search for the rover.

In less than 24 hours it was found. 

Quoted on a UWO newsletter, Stooke said, having found the one necessary image out of thousands, "The tracks were visible at once.  Knowing the history of the mission, 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."

Coming back to Garriott (Senior this time), we find that he operated the first ever Amateur radio Station from space, broadcasting as W5LFL.  This initial foray has expanded into a regular program on the Shuttle, Space Station Mir and the International Space Station, being operated by dozens of astronauts and cosmonauts.

This in turn led to ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) and amongst other uses, the regular schools communication program in which just recently, my own son participated.


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