Decoding the unusual object speeding around the Moon |

Decoding the unusual object speeding around the Moon |

In a remarkable celestial event, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) captured an unusual object speeding around the Moon. The incident, which occurred last month, initially sparked curiosity and speculation among scientists and space enthusiasts alike.
The LRO, which has been orbiting the Moon since 2009, is equipped with a powerful narrow-angle camera designed to capture high-resolution images of the lunar surface.Between March 5 and 6, 2024, during its routine surveillance, the LRO’s camera snapped a series of images featuring an elongated object in orbit around the Moon.
Upon closer examination, NASA officials identified the object as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), also known as Danuri. Launched by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) on August 4, 2022, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Danuri represents South Korea’s inaugural mission to the Moon.

In return, this was the image that the KPLO captured of the LRO. Source: NASA/KARI

Danuri’s mission is to orbit the Moon for one year, carrying out a variety of scientific experiments. These include studying the lunar environment, demonstrating a “lunar internet,” and identifying potential future landing sites. The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of scientific instruments developed by South Korea, along with one U.S.-built instrument.
The photobombing incident occurred as the KPLO and LRO passed each other in almost parallel orbits but traveling in opposite directions. The relative high-speed movement of both orbiters, estimated to be close to 7,200 miles per hour, resulted in Danuri appearing elongated in the LRO’s images. This distortion made the KPLO seem almost ten times its actual size, despite the short exposure time of just 0.338 milliseconds used by the LRO’s camera.
The successful capture of these images by the LRO was a testament to the precise timing required by the operations team at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The high travel velocities between the LRO and Danuri necessitated perfect coordination to photograph the South Korean spacecraft as it whizzed by.
Interestingly, this is not the first time the two spacecraft have imaged each other. In April 2023, the KPLO successfully obtained images of the LRO using its ShadowCam, provided by NASA for the South Korean orbiter’s mission.
Danuri’s spacecraft design adheres to conventional standards, featuring a box-shaped structure complemented by solar panel wings and a parabolic antenna. Its propulsion system is monopropellant-based, comprising four 30N thrusters for orbital adjustments and an extra set of four 5N thrusters dedicated to attitude control.
The unexpected photobombing by Danuri adds an intriguing chapter to the history of space exploration. It highlights the increasing traffic around the Moon as various nations send their probes to our natural satellite. This event also highlights the importance of international cooperation in space exploration, as evidenced by the shared use of instruments and data between NASA and KARI.
As humanity continues to reach for the stars, such encounters remind us of the vastness of space and the potential for unexpected discoveries. The LRO’s encounter with Danuri is a reminder of the dynamic nature of space exploration and the continuous quest for knowledge beyond our planet. This photobombing event, while unusual, is a snapshot of the collaborative spirit that propels us further into the cosmos.

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