After completing their mission to the moon, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong re-boarded the command module Columbia. But what really happened to the Eagle lunar lander?
We know the story. Rooster behavior between the USSR and the United States, Yuri Gagarin, Apollo 11, the moon landing, Neil Armstrong and his ‘one small step…’. After Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lifted off from the lunar surface in their Eagle spacecraft, they headed for the command module Columbia, which orbited the moon. After boarding the Columbia with 22 kilograms of moon rock, the hatch closed and the Eagle was jettisoned 125 kilometers away. But then what happened to that? Is the eagle still orbiting the moon?
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NASA always assumed that the Eagle would be pulled into the moon’s gravity over time and eventually crash into it. James Meador of the California Institute of Technology doubts it. Planetary geologists have known for some time that the moon’s mass is not evenly distributed. And this causes small variations in the gravitational field which was mapped by two space probes in 2012 (see photo opposite).
This gave Meador the idea to calculate how it affected the Eagle’s orbit and where it crashed. He loaded all the data into NASA’s general mission analysis tool, a sort of open-source space navigation program, and the result was surprising. The gravitational pull of the earth, sun and moon seemed to have little influence on the orbit. According to the program, the spacecraft would still orbit at roughly the same altitude as it did in 1969.
No one knows if this is the case. The distance is too great for that, the Eagle too small and its location too uncertain. It is also possible that the spacecraft disintegrated due to a fuel explosion or because space radiation and leaking batteries damaged the structure. But how cool it would be if he was still around and could be photographed one day.
You might find this question in WATCH 2/2022.
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