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.