NASA's “Pinged” Chandrayaan-3's Vikram Lander spacecraft retroreflector on the Moon

ISRO's Vikram lander, which has a NASA reflector, touched down on the Moon on August 23, 2023. The camera on board NASA's LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) captured this image four days later.  (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University)ISRO's Vikram lander, which has a NASA reflector, touched down on the Moon on August 23, 2023. The camera on board NASA's LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) captured this image four days later.  (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University)

ISRO's Vikram lander, which has a NASA reflector, touched down on the Moon on August 23, 2023. The camera on board NASA's LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) captured this image four days later.

(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University)

In a major leap for lunar exploration, a NASA spacecraft orbiting the Moon has successfully 'jumped' India's Chandrayaan-3 lander, demonstrating a pioneering new technology for pinpointing positions on the lunar surface with laser-sharp precision.

Lighthouse in the lunar desert

Imagine shining a laser pointer across a wide, dusty plain. If it hits a highly reflective mirror, the beam bounces back, revealing its location. This is essentially what happened here, but on a global scale. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) fires laser pulses toward a small NASA-built retroreflector mounted on India's Vikram lander, which is located near the Moon's south pole crater, Manzinus.

Previously, the positions of spacecraft were determined by tracking their orbits around Earth. But for detailed surface missions, such as establishing lunar outposts or mining resources, pinpoint accuracy is crucial.

More than just a “ping,” reflected light captured by LRO's laser altimeter confirmed the lander's precise location, opening a new era of precise navigation on the lunar surface. The ability to “inspect” stationary objects from a moving spacecraft provides a valuable reference point, paving the way for future missions.

Beyond the moon

The effects extend far beyond our lunar neighbour. This technology could be crucial for navigating the surface of Mars, finding rovers, or landing future manned missions with pinpoint precision. Imagine astronauts building a base on Mars, relying on a network of these retroreflectors to map and navigate their surroundings with laser-guided precision!

With this successful “connection”, the future of lunar exploration looks brighter than ever. This new technology promises to point us toward a more precise and collaborative era of lunar exploration, paving the way for a future in which humans and robots work together to unlock the secrets of the moon and beyond. As Xiao Li Sun, the NASA scientist who led the team, said, “This is a big step forward in lunar science and exploration, and shows what we can achieve when we work together.”

Moreover, this achievement is a testament to the power of international cooperation. The retroreflector for the Vikram lander was developed by NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in a joint effort, highlighting the growing synergy between spacefaring nations.

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