NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has successfully bounced a laser off of India's Vikram lander, which successfully touched down on the Moon's surface in August.
The LRO's laser altimeter aimed its sights at Vikram in December, shooting it with a series of laser pulses. Vikram's 2-inch-wide retroreflector, which comes courtesy of NASA, bounced these signals right back, with scientists confirming the first-of-its-kind "ping" moments later.
The feat could revolutionize the way we locate objects and determine their exact locations on the Moon's surface from vast distances using a surprisingly low-tech solution.
"We’ve showed that we can locate our retroreflector on the surface from the Moon’s orbit," said Xiaoli Sun, team lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. "The next step is to improve the technique so that it can become routine for missions that want to use these retroreflectors in the future."
The tiny retroreflector is outfitted with "eight quartz-corner-cube prisms set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame," per NASA, giving it a highly unusual look. It doesn't need any power and is surprisingly durable, meaning it could "last for decades."
In short, it's vaguely reminiscent of the cat's eye reflector that keeps you visible to cars when you're on your bike in the dark.
These tiny devices could give future space explorers a way to find their way in the dark and assist them during landings.
Unfortunately, gathering more data may prove difficult as the LRO's altimeter is the only laser in the Moon's orbit right now. And it's been operating for 13 years past its intended lifecycle.
The latest feat involving Vikram also didn't work on the first try. It took the team at NASA eight tries in total to make contact. And that's not surprising since it needs to be accurate within just one hundredth of a degree of the retroreflector.
However, NASA will soon have plenty more opportunities to work on the tech as several landers with NASA retroreflectors are already scheduled to attempt to land on the Moon — including Japan's SLIM lander, which has now touched down on the surface.
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