By Margaret Munro, Canwest News ServiceMarch 16, 2010
The tracks were clearly visible on the moon's surface, leading lunar sleuth Phil Stooke straight to the long-lost Russian rover — and effectively solving a 37-year old mystery over the craft's location. "There is a black dot where the track stops and that's the rover itself," he said.
When NASA released on Monday images and data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), revealing the moon's surface in unprecedented detail, Stooke wasted no time finding the Lunokhod 2, one of the first remote-controlled rovers to beam back pictures of craters and moon rocks. "The tracks were visible at once," said Stooke, who set up a searchable database to sort through the new NASA images. "We can see where (the rover) 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," he added. "That ultimately caused it to overheat and stop working. And the rover itself shows up as a dark spot right where it stopped."
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is on a one-year exploration mission from a perch about 50 kilometres above the moon. The plan is to produce a comprehensive map, search for resources and potential safe landing sites. Stooke — a professor at the University of Western Ontario who has written extensively about lunar exploration — hopes it will also enable him to find other lunar relics.
Having bagged the Lunokhod 2, he's already moved on to searching the images for the Surveyor 5, which made a lunar landing in 1967, before NASA astronauts walked on the moon. But locating the Russian Lunokhod 2 is quite a find, Stooke said, as the craft still holds the record for distance travelled on another celestial body. (It conked out after a 35-kilometre trek.)
The travels of Lunokhod 2 and its companion rover also marked "the first time anyone ever drove something by remote control on another world," said Stooke, author of The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration. He plans to update the book, published in 2007, with the new images of the rovers that he speculates may one day need protection as "historic sites." If space travel ever becomes routine, he chuckled that someone might need to draw a line around the early rovers and say: "You can't come any closer than this."