Is Apollo 11 Still on the Moon?

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history in 1969 with their lunar landing of their LM-5 spacecraft on the moon, taking pictures, depositing rock samples on lunar surfaces, and installing scientific experiments which still send back data today.

An independent researcher recently realized that it is possible that the Lunar Module’s ascent stage may not have fallen directly onto the Moon as was widely believed. Instead, it may still be in orbit visible by telescopes back on Earth.

The Lunar Module

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin performed a two-hour spacewalk outside of their Lunar Module (LM) to explore the Moon in August 1969. They collected samples, conducted experiments on its surface, transmitted back via TV camera footage back to Earth via their LM TV camera, left equipment such as flags for future astronauts to erect on it – all contained within an internal compartment called MESA or Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly of their LM spaceship.

MESA compartment was intended for crew members to open as they descended the ladder, housing surface excavation tools and sample collection boxes as well as a television camera that could be deployed from a hatch in the floor of the spacecraft. Furthermore, this compartment stored replacement Portable Life Support System batteries as well as extra lithium hydroxide canisters that were stored there for use during extended moonwalking sessions on later missions.

While traveling towards the lunar surface, commander and LM pilot would open docking hatches and temporarily power up its systems. Once in lunar parking orbit, astronauts would power up its ascent stage before decoupling it from its descent stage.

As soon as astronauts returned to lunar orbit with their command module in lunar orbit, the lunar module descent stage (LM) was left behind on the Moon as part of its descent stage deployment process. Subsequently, its ascent stage was launched from underneath it and both modules eventually parted ways; with its ascent stage returning into Earth’s atmosphere where its fuel would eventually burn off before it was ultimately abandoned.

The LM-5, commonly referred to by astronauts as the “Eagle,” is one of two flown LM descent stages preserved as museum exhibits (the other can be found at the Smithsonian). Built by Grumman Aerospace on Long Island in New York and displayed at Long Island MacArthur Airport where it first came into service, its birthplace. Also featured prominently in Ron Howard’s 1995 movie Apollo 13 as well as by Tom Hanks in 2013 comedy show Arrested Development, its presence here makes this vehicle particularly special and worthy of special display in any museum setting – unlike its counterpart at Smithsonian!).

The Service Module

An abandoned part of the spacecraft that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon may still be orbiting it instead of having crash-landed as was once thought. James Meador, an independent researcher who recently published an article about his findings on arXiv (preprint server), offers his explanation.

Apollo 11 Command/Service Module (CSM) had some demanding functions to fulfill during its sole mission: it needed to eject from within the tip of a Stage Three rocket, make a 180-degree turn, and dock head first with Lunar Module (LM), all while traveling through space at over 20,000 mph.

In addition, the Lunar Module had to take on some heavy lifting duties. Though not as robust as its counterpart, the CSM, the Lunar Module needed to withstand both lunar surface travel and its return into Earth’s atmosphere without suffering significant wear-and-tear.

The Lunar Module (LM) featured hatches that opened into the CSM, as well as hatches to open to its docking ring and probe for astronauts to move between modules. Once astronauts undocked from LM, they removed both docking probe and ring from its conical shape before discarding both after undocking from LM. In addition, it included its own reentry systems as well as early Apollo scientific experiments designed to remain on moon after astronauts left.

One such experiment was the Laser Ranging Retroreflector, a series of mirrors used by scientists to measure distances between Earth and Moon. Another tracked lunar dust’s effect on equipment. And finally a third experiment used sunlight to accurately determine Moon temperatures and rotation rates.

After two and a half hours on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the LM and disembarked; mission commander Michael Collins remained in the CSM, which was then released into lunar orbit.

As planned, the ascent stage of LM was adjusted so it faced forward, and its re-entry sequence started. Following an epic flight lasting 195 hours 19 minutes 13 seconds due to weather conditions–more than 36 minutes longer than planned–LM splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th 1969.

The Command Module

When looking at photos of Apollo 11 rocket, its massive tip and five giant engines may immediately come to mind, with fire emerging from all five engines in its first stage. But if you look closer, you’ll see an even smaller spacecraft tucked underneath – the Command Module. Inside was packed astronauts, clothing, sleeping bags, systems necessary for travel around-trip to the Moon as well as all necessary systems required for success on such an endeavor.

At launch, the CM weighed approximately 12,250 pounds and had a habitable volume of 210 cubic feet. It featured four axes of motion controlled by 12x93lbf (414N) maneuvering jets, while two yaw motors in its rear compartment provided repositioning capability; two pitch/roll motors controlled direction of travel while four tanks held 122 kg each of N2O4 oxidizer and MMH fuel; two of the tanks were pressurized with 0.5 kg helium before launch.

North American Aviation in Downey, California constructed and launched the CM aboard Saturn V. As soon as they received their contract for building Apollo rockets they needed to ramp up production quickly, so they hired engineers and technicians from all across the United States for work on this project.

Once the astronauts had completed their tasks on the lunar surface, they docked with the LM for transfer of crew and rock samples, as well as use of its descent engine for slowing and landing on the Moon. Finally, after fireing a series of burns to slow its speed before making contact, it fired several sequences that gradually decreased speed until finally touching down on its target surface.

Once Armstrong and Aldrin completed the landing, they moved directly into the CM and docked. Once docked, the LM was jettisoned while Armstrong and Aldrin floated back to Earth in the CSM. While most speculate that its ascent stage hit the Moon soon afterwards, an independent researcher named James Meador has calculated that it may still be orbiting over 52 years later!

Meador’s calculations used new gravitational data of the Moon. He compared this information with what was known about its ascent stage’s trajectory during its return journey back to CM. Meador published his research in May on arXiv, an open preprint server used for publishing non-peer reviewed studies.

The Eagle

Armstrong and Aldrin’s home during their 21.5 hours on the Moon was known as The Eagle; it contained their rocket engine, fuel tanks, science and exploration equipment and even a ladder so they could make those first steps on its surface.

Apollo 11’s Spacecraft Module had undergone months of rigorous testing at Kennedy Space Center before being transported by Super Guppy aircraft for mating with Command Module Columbia and Flight Readiness Reviews; an exhaustive procedure which evaluated every component down to every bolt.

On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin undocked their Eagle spacecraft from Columbia for one final check before beginning their descent towards the Moon. Over the next several hours they reported altitude and speed changes back to Mission Control as they made their descent, while Aldrin kept close watch on a computer that seemed to direct them toward West Crater as an ideal landing site.

As they neared the lunar surface, Armstrong noticed warning lights in his Eagle. Concerned they might indicate problems with landing radar, he called Mission Control who assured him not to worry and advised keeping an eye on radar screen screen for more details.

Once they had enough distance between themselves and the Moon, Aldrin and Armstrong fired the descent engine and started their descent. It took less than two minutes before they reached its surface despite previous issues with radar; Aldrin and Armstrong used the descent stage to deploy instruments such as seismometers for measuring lunar quakes; laser retroreflectors to precisely measure distances; and devices to collect samples of lunar atmosphere.

After 21.5 hours on the lunar surface, it was time for Eagle’s return home. Once aboard the descent stage, astronauts transferred from its ascent stage back onto its descent stage, with its ascent stage being jettisoned back into orbit before it eventually splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.

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