Monday, January 20, 2020


The descent stage of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module ("Snoopy") may still be in lunar orbit today. This defies conventional wisdom. It goes against all expectation about how things behave in lunar orbit. It is the last thing I expected to find when I set out to look for an impact crater that I assumed would be the final resting place of the stage. Nonetheless, this is what simulations of the stage orbit show. In this blog I will show how I arrived at this surprising conclusion.

This picture of the descent stage ladder and footpad comes from the 16mm "DAC" film taken on May 22, 1969, during the dramatic moments when the stage was jettisoned. 

Snoopy's tail was jettisoned into lunar orbit on May 22, 1969, during a daring mission that paved the way for the first moon landing less than two months later. Apollo 10 was the first mission to take a Lunar Module to the moon; the first test of all the hardware and procedures. All except landing. It was the first demonstration of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, the risky, radical, "sine qua non" of Apollo. 

When I started looking for the stage, I was expecting a quick orbital decay. Everything I read said that's what happened. I thought this would mean less uncertainty about the impact point...a smaller search area. So I was disappointed when I started running simulations, showing that the stage stayed in orbit for months. That was not helpful for finding a crater. My remaining hope was that some high piece of lunar terrain might have snatched the stage if it slowly drifted down to lower and lower altitudes. Perhaps I could focus the search on lunar mountaintops. So I kept looking.

The stage orbit was unusual, in terms of Apollo orbits. In order to demonstrate undocking, firing the LM descent engine to approach the moon, and then firing the ascent engine for the rendezvous, NASA had a problem. Without any landing, they needed a way to arrange for the right timing of the maneuvers. The descent would put the LM in a lower orbit, moving it ahead of the Command Service Module. (The "CSM".) Demonstrating the ascent and rendezvous required that the CSM be leading the LM. The solution was the "Phasing" maneuver. This special burn, never performed by any other Apollo mission, would raise the high side of the LM orbit to 190 nautical miles above the far side of the moon, slowing down the LM's orbital period enough to allow the CSM to overtake it.

This plot of the LM position relative to the Command Module, from mission planning documents, shows how the "Phasing" burn pushed the LM into a higher orbit, so that it would drop behind the CM, giving the right alignment for rendezvous.

While the LM was in the Phasing orbit, 12 n.m. at its low point, and 190 at the high point, the descent stage was jettisoned, with an initial velocity relative to the ascent stage of around 2 feet per second. (Both parts were zipping along at a mile a second at this point.) The goal was to kick the stage forward, but unexpected problems with the attitude controls during staging altered this, and the stage was pushed "upward" relative to the local horizontal at the time of staging. (Notice that the moon is "upside down" in the picture above taken during wasn't supposed to be this way.) Regardless of the extra drama, ten minutes later, the stage was at a safe distance, and the crew fired the ascent engine, slowing their velocity and lowering the high side of their orbit, putting them on track for a successful rendezvous and docking. The stage was left behind in the phasing orbit. It was assumed that this orbit would quickly decay, impacting the moon within days or weeks.

As I starting running simulations of the stage orbit, the hope for a quick demise did not pan out. I ran the simulations out longer and longer, out 10 years, and still the stage kept going. Finally I decided to run the simulation out to the present. This took about 40 hours on my laptop. At the end, the stage remained in orbit all the way to the present, with no sign of decay or orbital instability. As I build out this blog I will share more details, and show you how to try it to see for yourself.

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