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NASA Just Shot A Laser At India’s Moon Lander

The never-before-attempted approach hit a target the size of an Oreo cookie on the Moon.

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Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

author

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Alfredo (he/him) has a PhD in Astrophysics on galaxy evolution and a Master's in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces.

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Edited by Katy Evans
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Katy Evans

Managing Editor

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

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An image of the lunar surface in a digitally drawn sqaure you can see a white halo of soil and inside very tiny, vikram

This is Vikram as seen by LRO from orbit around the Moon. The retroreflector on it is the size of an Oreo cookie and NASA still managed to ping it with a laser.

Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/ Arizona State University

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully shot a laser toward India's Vikram lander on the Moon. However, this was not the first shot in a new space war but a carefully planned scientific experiment. The laser traveled about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from orbit to the surface of the Moon, hitting a target just 5 centimeters (2 inches) wide. It was the first time a laser was shot from around the Moon to a target on its surface. 

The tiny Oreo-sized target, a Laser Retroreflector Array, was placed on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)’s Vikram lander. The laser bounced off the target and was picked up again by NASA as it whizzed around the Moon. Bouncing light to and from satellites is used on Earth to know where they are in their orbit. On the Moon, this approach could be used to determine the precise location of a stationary object. 

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“We’ve shown that we can locate our retroreflector on the surface from the Moon’s orbit,” mission leader Xiaoli Sun, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. “The next step is to improve the technique so that it can become routine for missions that want to use these retroreflectors in the future.”

A dome-shaped gold colored object with eight holes where reflective prisms are encased
The Laser Retroreflector Array has eight quartz-corner-cube prisms set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame.
Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


Xiaoli Sun’s team developed the retroreflector on Vikram as part of a partnership between NASA and ISRO. The device can reflect light coming from any direction. It is also completely optical, so it doesn’t require power or maintenance. This means they could keep finding the precise location of Vikram over and over again for decades to come. Vikram is no longer functional so it's not actually going anywhere, but future missions will move on the Moon, and knowing where they are will be important.

Surprisingly the difficulty was not the target. Retroreflectors on the Moon about the size of a suitcase have been used since the Apollo era. Thanks to those we know that the Moon is moving away from us by 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches) every year. NASA used the only laser instrument around the Moon right now, the Lunar Orbiter's altimeter, LOLA. LOLA, which has been working 13 years beyond its primary mission so far, was not designed to hit such a small target, usually aiming for an area 10 meters wide.  

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“We would like LOLA to point to this Oreo-sized target and hit it every time, which is hard,” said Daniel Cremons, a NASA Goddard scientist who works with Sun.

It took LOLA eight goes to hit the Vikram retroreflector but if LOLA can do it, specialized future lasers could easily make retroreflectors a crucial technology for future lunar missions. NASA also has a retroreflector on Japan's SLIM, which landed on the Moon on Friday. We shall see if LOLA can repeat the same impressive feat again.


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spaceSpace and Physics
  • tag
  • moon,

  • lunar reconnaissance orbiter,

  • SLIM,

  • Chandrayaan-3

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