Russian Rover Found on the Moon

Using images from LRO, the location of the Russian lunar rover, Lunokhod 2, has been identified on the Moon.
Credit: University of Western Ontario

A researcher from The University of Western Ontario has helped solve a 37-year old space mystery using lunar images just released by NASA and maps from his own atlas of the Moon.

Phil Stooke, a professor cross-appointed to Western’s Departments of Physics & Astronomy and Geography, published a major reference book on lunar exploration in 2007 entitled, “The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration.”

On March 15, images and data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) seven instruments were posted online. Using his atlas and the new NASA images, Stooke pinpointed the exact location of the lost Russian rover Lunokhod 2.

This rover was the second of two unmanned rovers that the Soviet Union’s space program landed on the Moon. The rover arrived on the lunar surface on January 15, 1973. After many months of successful exploration, contact with the rover was lost. On June 4, 1973, it was announced that the program was completed.

Stooke discovered tracks left by the Lunokhod 2 lunar sampler 37 years ago after it made a 35-kilometer trek. The journey was the longest any robotic rover has ever been driven on another celestial body.

As soon as the NASA photos were released, scientists around the world, including Stooke, began work to locate the rover. Stooke set up a searchable image database and located the photograph he needed, among thousands of others.

The seven instruments aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter provide varied and unique datasets.

“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.”

Stooke says that NASA scientists have used his atlas in both preparation and data recovery. This new find will mean that older maps published by Russia will now need to be revised.

Scheduled for a one year exploration mission about 31 miles above the lunar surface, LRO will produce a comprehensive map, search for resources and potential safe landing sites and measure lunar temperatures and radiation levels.

"The one year exploration mission will deliver 130 terabytes of data, enabling a more detailed study of our nearest celestial neighbor," says John Keller, LRO Deputy Project Scientist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "We expect LRO to provide more data than all of the previous planetary missions combined.”

Stooke’s next project is to create a similar volume on Mars exploration which will include the best maps of the moons of Mars.