Part of the Apollo 11 Spacecraft May Still Be Orbiting the Moon

New research suggests the ‘Eagle’ ascent stage either exploded in space or remains in orbit—but it likely didn’t crash land back on the lunar surface

Apollo 11 ascent stage aloft above Earth with the moon rising in the distance
The ascent module (pictured) may still be orbiting the moon—or it exploded. According to the new calculations, the space junk never crash-landed onto the moon's surface as previously expected. NASA APPEL Knowledge Services via Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Independent researcher James Meador at the California Institute of Technology had an idea: using new gravitational data of the Moon, maybe he could track where the Apollo 11 ascent stage crashed after it returned astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the command module following the first lunar landing in 1969. He was thrilled to pursue the chance to locate the impact site on the moon for history’s sake.

As Meador ran his calculations from the last known location of the spacecraft—about 125 kilometers above the lunar surface—he began to realize something significant: the ascent stage vehicle might not have crashed as everyone assumed. If fact, he theorized it could still be orbiting the moon.

Meador’s recent research posits that the ascent vehicle may still be visible and could be detected by radar or even a telescope. Posted in May on arXiv, a preprint server for studies not yet peer-reviewed, the study will be published in Science Direct’s peer-reviewed journal Planetary and Space Science in October.

“The Eagle was abandoned in lunar orbit, everyone just kind of forgot about it, and the assumption was it struck the Moon decades ago,” Meador tells Jonathan O’Callaghan of New Scientist magazine. The researcher suggests the spacecraft is possibly in the same orbit it was left in on July 21, 1969.

“It’s more or less where it was 52 years ago,” he says in the article.

In doing his research, Meador used data from the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission by NASA, which used two spacecraft to detect gravitational fluctuations of the moon. When he entered those numbers into the General Mission Analysis Tool simulator, an open-source space navigation calculator, he expected to find the place where the Eagle had crashed into the moon. Instead, the trajectories were showing the vehicle was still in orbit at roughly the same distance from the surface as when it was released five decades ago, reports David Szondy of New Atlas.

“These numerical experiments support the hypothesis that even with the uncertainty of the initial conditions, the true orbit of the Eagle exhibits long-term stability, and the spacecraft would not have impacted the Moon due to gravitational effects,” Meador says in an article by Discover magazine.

The exact fate of the Eagle is still unknown, mainly because NASA does not track its spacecraft after a mission is over. It could still be in lunar orbit, according to Meador’s calculations, or it could have exploded. The United States space agency speculates that leaking fuel and corrosive batteries may have caused the module to succumb to aging hardware instead of gravity, reports Discover magazine.

Properly-aimed radar should be able to detect the ascent stage if it is still there, Meador states. If it is, its historical value might be enough to warrant a space salvage operation.

“A lot of people would be really excited to hear this thing still existed,” Meador tells New Scientist. “It would be amazing to bring it back to Earth and put it in a museum.”