Way back in October 2014, one of NASA’s spacecraft had a very bad day.
The space agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) — which launched on its mission to study the moon in 2009 — was actually smacked in the camera by a tiny piece of fast-moving space debris on Oct. 13, 2014.
But amazingly, it lived to tell the tale.
A photo taken that day by the LRO’s camera in question shows a kind of incredible looking zigzag pattern distorting a black and white image of the moon.
“Since the impact presented no technical problems for the health and safety of the instrument, the team is only now announcing this event as a fascinating example of how engineering data can be used, in ways not previously anticipated, to understand what is happening to the spacecraft over 236,000 miles (380,000 kilometers) from the Earth,” John Keller, LRO project scientist, said in a statement.
The wobbly photo also presented an interesting opportunity for anyone curious about what it might “sound” like when a spacecraft is smacked in the face with a little piece of space rock.
According the Alex Parker — the scientist who converted the visual waves into sound — it sounds a little bit like “spang.”
Here’s a first-pass audio reconstruction of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter micrometeoroid strike, estimated from image oscillation.
— Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker) May 26, 2017
Researchers also did a little space age sleuthing to figure out exactly how large the micrometeoroid that impacted the LRO camera was.
LRO scientists worked backwards using data collected by the spacecraft during the impact to figure out that a piece of debris the size of half a pinhead was responsible for the wiggly image.
“The meteoroid was traveling much faster than a speeding bullet,” LRO scientist Mark Robinson, said in the statement.
Scientists also know that the image must have been due to a micrometeoroid strike because there were no other events onboard the spacecraft — like antenna movements or solar panel repositionings — that could have caused that vibration at the time.
Space debris in general is dangerous for satellites in orbit around Earth or really anywhere else in the solar system. Speeding particles of dust and ice can really damage a spacecraft’s systems, but luckily, the LRO got through this close brush relatively unscathed.