Monday, February 21, 2022

What About Orion?

As I write this, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 16 mission is a few months away. Like all of the later Apollo missions, the plan for the ascent stage of the Lunar Module “Orion”, after it returned the astronauts to orbit, was to intentionally crash it into the lunar surface. This would generate seismic waves that would reveal the inner structure of the Moon by way of the seismometers left on the surface by the astronauts. These intentional impacts were done for the Apollo 12, 14, 15, and 17 missions. But something went wrong during Apollo 16, and the LM “Orion” stage did not hold its attitude (orientation) after it was jettisoned. With no way to control which way it was pointing, there was no safe way to command its engine to fire. It was abandoned in orbit, left to drift under the forces of lunar gravity, and no one knows what happened to it. Let’s turn our attention to Orion and see if we can shed some light on what became of this vessel.

If you’ve read my previous posts, you know the drill by now. We can get the initial conditions for the stage orbit from the Mission Report. We use GMAT and a high-fidelity gravity map to simulate the spacecraft. We record the “perilune”, the lowest point, for each revolution, and watch to see how close the stage comes to the surface over time. The orbital period is about two hours, as usual for low lunar orbits, so we get about 12 perilune points per day. GMAT simulates one year of spacecraft time in about an hour (on my computer) so we get a month of simulated orbit data every 5 minutes or so. The simulator doesn’t know about terrain, but we can tell the simulator to stop once the perilune point is a few km below the mean radius…at a point where an impact would surely already have occurred.

Figure 1: Simulated Perilune Altitude for Orion

Using the “nominal” initial conditions from the Mission Report, I get a script like this one. And the resulting perilune sequence is shown in Figure 1. It looks like Orion didn’t remain in orbit very long. By the end of May 1972, the spacecraft is already zero km above the Moon’s mean radius. A day or two later the perilune has dropped to 5 km below mean radius. Whack!

If you read my earlier post about “PFS-2” the Apollo 16 subsatellite, you might notice something interesting. The perilune sequence looks very similar, and PFS-2 is known to have also impacted the Moon near the end of May. Did I use the wrong script? No, actually the similar result is not surprising, when you consider the release of each object. Figure 2 shows an excerpt from the Mission Report, and details the sequence. After Orion was jettisoned, the astronauts performed a small “separation burn”, changing their velocity by just 2 feet per second. Then an hour later they released PFS-2. So, Orion was drifting along nearby when PFS-2 was jettisoned, and the two objects were in very similar orbits. They were in almost the same plane, and at almost the same altitude and speed. In hindsight it is not surprising that both orbits destabilize in a similar fashion.

Figure2: This excerpt from the Mission Report shows how the PFS-2 subsatellite was launched soon after Orion was jettisoned. Both events are during the 62nd revolution around the Moon, and just one small "CSM separation" maneuver was performed in between. Thus Orion and PFS-2 were in very similar orbits. Similar impact dates should not be surprising.

Where does Orion impact the Moon in this nominal case? Using the analysis method I describe here, Orion strikes the Moon at 77.5E, 8.16N at 8:14 on June 1st, 1972. Again, that is very similar to the impact time and point reported by NASA for PFS-2. The time is day or so later, and the impact is farther West. This simulation runs fairly quickly, completing in under 10 minutes on my computer. That means it will be quick to run a lot of variations of the initial conditions, so as to understand how much uncertainty there is in the result. I'll post those results later.

There is another important source of data we can look to for clues about Orion: those seismometers left on the surface that I mentioned above. In May of 1972 NASA had 4 stations operating, at the landing sites of Apollo 12, 14, 15, and 16. (The station at the Apollo 11 site stopped working late in August of 1969.) The data from all 4 stations was monitored and recorded continuously. The impact of Orion, weighing 5,000 pounds and moving at a mile per second, should have registered as a meteoroid strike, so we’ll be able to look for seismic events that might help to pinpoint the time of impact.

And then, in addition to the Mission Report, there are other clues we can use to help understand Orion’s initial orbit. During the later Apollo Missions, including Apollo 16, an extensive set of photographs were taken from lunar orbit by Panoramic and Mapping Cameras operating in the science bay of the Service Module. Each of these photos has an associated blob of data about the location of the spacecraft when it was taken. Hopefully this data can be used to further refine the initial conditions. And then if we get very lucky, these photographs might contain a “before” view of the area where Orion hit the surface, making it easier to identify any “new” crater.

Okay, so we have a large spacecraft that struck the Moon within weeks of its last sighting. We have a number of great data sources that we can search for clues. We have photos of the surface taken before the impact, and of course we have the high-resolution images captured by LRO and other lunar satellites. Perhaps we can identify the impact crater of Orion in time for the 50th anniversary of the mission. The game is on!

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