Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/03/17/lunokhod_2_located/

Game developer's lost electric buggy FOUND ON MOON

Vintage 1973 vehicle discovered by NASA orbiter

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 17th March 2010 12:34 GMT

A lost, broken-down solar/nuclear robot rover left on the Moon by the Soviet space programme - and nowadays owned by a wealthy computer game developer and space tourist - has been precisely located by NASA's new moon-mapping satellite.

NASA LRO imagery showing tracks and final resting place of Lunokhod-2

NASA: Lunar lost property office

The Lunokhod-2 rover was despatched to the Moon in 1973, during the era of competition in space between the USA and the Soviets. It used a hinged solar panel to charge its batteries for moving about during the lunar day, but such a vehicle could never survive the chilly, two-week-long lunar nights unaided. A Polonium-210 radioisotope heater was provided to keep Lunokhod alive once the sun had set.

The rover spent five Earth months successfully driving across the surface of the Mare Serenitatis, rolling along with stops to recharge batteries in the daytime and hibernating in the warmth of its internal nuclear fires at night. Its 37km track is the longest ever left by the machines of humanity on an extraterrestrial body, comfortably eclipsing even the Lazarus-like latter day NASA rovers of Mars.

'Ivan, you fool, we're in a crater! Curse these imperialist photo maps!'

But then disaster struck. The Russian ground controllers, who handled the machine across a near-real-time link, accidentally drove it into a crater. As the machine struggled out again, it managed to get its heat radiator covered in Moon dirt. This dirt formed a strong insulator, causing the Lunokhod to suffer runaway overheating and wreck itself. The mission was abandoned.

How the Soviet Lunokhod rovers deployed. Credit: NASA.

Glorious solar/nuclear moon-car technology of the 1970s.

The Moon not being mapped with great precision at that time, the exact final location of Lunokhod-2 has never been known. (The Lunokhod ground controllers actually had to use NASA Apollo-orbiter overhead photographs, cadged from America, to navigate.) The broken-down rover carries a laser-ranging reflector which can be picked out by precision ranging stations on Earth, but as this NASA pdf from 2002 tells us, laser ranging can't be used to pin the lost machine down on a Moon map:

The uneven distribution of accurate control points causes the accuracy of the network to vary strongly with lunar position. Future missions to the Moon could improve the accuracy ... Future lunar orbital missions should accurately map all of the Apollo sites plus the two Lunokhod sites plus any new lander locations.

Auctioned, purchased by a space tourist ... now found at last

In June last year, that recommendation was followed when the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Its year-long mission, sweeping along in orbit just 30 miles above the airless lunar surface, will see it scan the entire Moon in unprecedented detail as the Earth's satellite rotates under the orbiter's polar circuit.

NASA released a fresh batch of LRO imagery this week, and Ontario based moon-map boffin Phil Stooke was on it like a rat up a drainpipe looking for the lost Lunokhod. He soon sniffed out the machine's 37-year-old signature.

“The tracks were visible at once,” says Stooke. “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.”

Lunokhod-2 is no longer Russian property, having been sold off at auction by Sotheby's in the hard times (for the former Soviet nations) of the early 1990s. The defunct rover was purchased by multimillionaire games developer Richard Garriott (sometimes aka "Lord British") of Ultima fame.

Garriott, the son of a NASA astronaut who served aboard the "Skylab" space station in Earth orbit just months after Lunokhod-2's radiator blew, has continued to pursue his enthusiasm for space in latter years, visiting today's International Space Station as a paying tourist in 2008.

Following this week's LRO imagery, Garriott will now know with some accuracy where his expensive, broken, radioactive Soviet moon-car actually is - even if he remains no closer to being actually able to take possession. Inaccurate Russian charts, according to Stooke, can now be corrected.

There's more on the new LRO imagery from NASA here, and on the Lunokhod find courtesy of the University of Western Ontario here. ®