With the return to the Moon on NASA’s roadmap it seems only fitting that a piece of lunar history has apparently been rediscovered, as astronomers finally pinpoint the long-lost “Snoopy” module that gave astronauts a dry run in early 1969. It was NASA’s test flight to put the lunar modular through its paces one last time before it made it all the way to the moon, but then the space agency allowed it to get lost.
Snoopy – named in honor of the cartoon dog – was the other half of Charlie Brown, the name given to the command module. Apollo 10 launched on May 18, 1969, just two months ahead of the successful Apollo 11 mission that saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin make it to the moon’s surface.
Astronauts Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan were never intended to land there, even though they got within around 50,000 feet of the moon. Instead, it was meant to be one final test of the module technology, the mission cutting off at the point where powered descent would start. Stafford and Cernan returned to Charlie Brown, before making their way back to Earth.
In all, the mission lasted just over eight days. One participant, however, didn’t make it back. Snoopy, after successfully docking with the command module and allowing the astronauts to transfer, was jettisoned.
NASA never intended it to be recovered, and indeed stopped tracking the module altogether. Back in 2011, however, a team of astronomers led by Nick Howes, a fellow at the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society, set out to find where Snoopy had ended up. At the time, the group estimated that it was a 235 million to 1 chance of succeeding.
That makes it all the more impressive that Howes and the team now say they’re “98-percent convinced” that the module has been found, Sky News reports. Most recently, they analyzed optical data gathered by the Mount Lemmon Observatory (MLO) in Arizona in 2018, which identified a possible target.
“Until we get close up radar data,” Howes pointed out on Twitter, “then nobody will know for sure … but it’s promising.”
The problem with that is the scale of the challenge actually getting such final confirmation faces. One possibility would be launching some cubesats – compact satellites that adhere to an easily-deployed form factor – on an intercept trajectory, Howes suggests. Even then, the cost of such a mission would make it fairly frivolous, the astronomer points out.
What it may require is for a space-obsessed, deep-pocketed enthusiast to foot the bill. There are, of course, a few of those who could step up: SpaceX’s Elon Musk, for example, or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Both have the launch capabilities, certainly, and SpaceX has already demonstrated that it’s more than capable of deploying a flock of satellites. Using those abilities to bring back Snoopy and return a piece of lunar history to Earth might even help pacify astronomers frustrated by the potential of the new SpaceX Starlink network to interfere with future telescope work.