Snoopy Come Home: The Search For Apollo 10

When it comes to the quest for artifacts from the Space Race of the 1960s, few items are more sought after than flown hardware. Oh sure, there have been stories of small samples of the 382 kg of moon rocks and dust that were returned at the cost of something like $25 billion making it into the hands of private collectors, and chunks of the moon may be the ultimate collector’s item, but really, at the end of the day it’s just rock and dust. The serious space junkie wants hardware – the actual pieces of human engineering that helped bring an epic adventure to fruition, and the closer to the moon the artifact got, the more desirable it is.

Sadly, of the 3,000,000 kg launch weight of a Saturn V rocket, only the 5,600 kg command module ever returned to Earth intact. The rest was left along the way, mostly either burned up in the atmosphere or left on the surface of the Moon. While some of these artifacts are recoverable – Jeff Bezos himself devoted a portion of his sizable fortune to salvage one of the 65 F1 engines that were deposited into the Atlantic ocean – those left on the Moon are, for now, unrecoverable, and in most cases they are twisted heaps of wreckage that was intentionally crashed into the lunar surface.

But at least one artifact escaped this ignominious fate, silently orbiting the sun for the last 50 years. This lonely outpost of the space program, the ascent stage from the Apollo 10 Lunar Module, appears to have been located by a team of amateur astronomers, and if indeed the spacecraft, dubbed “Snoopy” by its crew, is still out there, it raises the intriguing possibility of scoring the ultimate Apollo artifact by recovering it and bringing it back home.

The Expendables

For as well engineered as the entire Apollo program was, it made some serious compromises to get to the Moon within the time allotted by President Kennedy’s 1961 throwdown speech. With an essentially bottomless pit of money available, it was far quicker to design Apollo as a series of disposable modules rather than returnable, reusable spacecraft. Therefore, everything about Apollo traded money for speed of development, with everything built to do exactly one job, to do it well, and then, for the most part, go away.

This design philosophy was clear from the arrangement of the Lunar Module, or LM. Deployed from storage underneath the Command-Service Module (CSM) and docked to it, the ungainly assembly made the translunar voyage, whereupon the LM descended to the surface, braked and maneuvered by the engine in the lower descent stage. When it was time to go home, the two astronauts launched the upper ascent stage back into lunar orbit, docked with the CSM, and jettisoned the now useless ascent stage, which would orbit the Moon for a bit before crashing into it.

That was the script for all the manned landings. But Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the eventual landing of Apollo 11, was different. Its mission was to further characterize lunar gravitation so that the guidance systems could be tightly calibrated for Apollo 11, as well as to give the entire ground control team a chance to practice for the big show. To that end, astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan descended in the LM “Snoopy” to within 14 km of the lunar surface, tantalizingly close and yet so far before jettisoning the lower descent stage and returning to the Command Module “Charlie Brown”, piloted by John Young, for the ride home.

Going Off Script

Rather than becoming twisted wreckage on the surface like the descent stage, the remaining fuel in Snoopy’s ascent stage was used to blast it out of lunar orbit. It’s not clear why this was done from any of the available mission documents, but we can make a few guesses. First, missions from Apollo 11 onward left seismometers on the lunar surface, and having something massive crash into the surface at a known time and location was a perfect way to validate the instruments. Since Cernan and Stafford never touched down in Snoopy, they never placed those instruments, so crashing the machine into the Moon was pointless.

Furthermore, Snoopy came back to rendezvous with Charlie Brown with much more propellant on board than an ascent stage that had actually reached the surface would. Perhaps mission planners were worried about contaminating potential future landing sites with the hypergolic witch’s brew Snoopy carried in its tanks. Whatever the reason, Snoopy was put into a heliocentric orbit which NASA tracked for a while, but only until it was clear that it was no longer a threat to the astronauts as they returned home. Snoopy’s long, lonely time in space had begun.

Practically Priceless

Current position of 2018AV2, now thought to be the Snoopy ascent stage. Source: JPL/Solar System Dynamics

Snoopy remained lost for most of the next 50 years. But astronomers love a challenge, and the thought of finding a 4-meter wide piece of history after half a century proved irresistible. Nick Howes, an amateur astronomer and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, set out to find Snoopy. He and a team of astronomers, using telescopes in Hawaii, Australia, and Arizona, along with a few terabytes of radar data, began the search in 2011.

Working backward from the May 1969 start of Snoopy’s long journey, they found enough clues in the data to make a list of a number of near-Earth objects with the potential to be Snoopy. But we have made quite a mess up there. Added to the pile of natural objects in near-Earth orbit, narrowing down that list took some doing. One such object, WT1190F, was initially thought to be Snoopy, but it was determined to be the Star 37 rocket motor used for translunar injection of the Lunar Prospector mission in 1998. The orbit of WT1190F eventually crossed Earth’s orbit in 2015, and it ended up burning up over the Indian Ocean.

One object stood out from the data, though. Dubbed 2018AV2, the object has an orbital period of 382 days, making it only slightly slower than Earth and currently following it. It’s pretty much on the same orbital plane as Earth, too, a good indication that it’s an artificial object. Its apparent brightness corresponds to what one would expect from a lunar ascent module, so all signs point to it being Snoopy. However, the object is currently over a third of an astronomical unit, or 55,000,000 km, away from Earth – too far to be 100% sure. More observations, like small perturbations in its orbit that wouldn’t happen for natural objects, or spectrographic analysis to see if its paint matches NASA records, are needed to make sure it’s Snoopy.

The next time AV2 gets close to Earth is in July 2037, almost 68 years since Snoopy was abandoned in space. It will only be 6,400,000 km away, close enough to possibly mount a recovery mission. That gives us 18 years to tighten up the data, possibly by sending a small satellite to intercept it and perhaps snap a picture. If it is Snoopy, it’s a one-of-a-kind artifact and it may just be feasible to send a salvage mission to retrieve it. It would be hideously expensive, but something like that is practically priceless in terms of historical value, and it may well prove as irresistible to some future treasure hunter as it did to Nick Howes and the others to locate it in the first place.

66 thoughts on “Snoopy Come Home: The Search For Apollo 10

    1. I’d put my money on Bezos, really. He’s much more likely to still be a billionaire in 2037 than Elon, and he has a proven track record of recovering Apollo artifacts.

        1. There will always be money. It’s a fundamental component in the world’s oldest profession. Now whether we hold our money in our wallet, bank account, or a cryptocurrency wallet will be a matter that can change. I would expect some of all three sort of like how I still have music on LPs, cassette tapes, CDs, and MP3 files. (not old enough to have a Victrola :-) )

      1. By then I expect Elon to no longer be a Billionaire. I think it all hinges on the success or Starlink/Skynet. If it goes well he may become the first Trillionaire. If it goes poorly he may become merely a multi-millionaire. :-) I’m hoping for the former. I want him to succeed so he has money to blow trying to settle off-world.

        It would bee cool if Musk and Bezos got into their own pissing-contest/space-race to see who can get to Snoopy first. Nothing like a little competition to bring the best out of people. One could get the joy and honor of being first while the other gets the honor of receiving it as a gift, holding it for a short while until it ends up in the Smithsonian at a healthy tax write-off. I wonder how much one could write off for taxes if one gave it to the Smithsonian.

        1. An interesting thing about the Smithsonian,
          through an act of Congress, they can do whatever they want with anything donated to them.
          Even if the donor has the Smithsonian sign a contract saying that the item will never be sold, the Smithsonian lawyer could call a potential buyer as soon as the contract is accepted.

          1. A contract which is contrary to law is not a valid contract. No donor could force the Smithsonian to sign such a contract. Smithsonian is under no obligation to accept donations.

          2. A few years ago, came uoon a story in Winnipeg. They moved to new police quarters, but can’t just resell the old ine. The land was sold cheap to the city by my cousins, in condition that it being used for public good. So they have to out it to good use. If they sell it, the money goes to the descendants. Sadly, , it was at the kevel of my great grandfather’s cousins, so I ‘m not jn line for miney.

            Winnioet cjty hal is on another piece if similar land.

            Here in Montreal, over fifty years ago a beer company, now long gone, gave land to the city, and put a planetarium on it. Same sirt if condition. When the city put up a new planetarium, the old site got some educatiinal use, because of the condition.

            Michael

        2. What are the laws of salvage in space? It would be terrible if someone invested all of that time and millions of dollars only to have the federal gov. take its property back from them…for free. It happens on the open sea…if you find millions in Spanish gold, Spain will demand you return it to them, etc.

      2. I would not, simply based on none of Blue Origin’s planned vehicles having the volume to return something that large safely to the surface of the Earth.

        It’s going to require a large cargo volume capacity, the ability to re-enter and land, and cargo mass capacity.

        Something more like this.

        1. Or, just fly up some fuel for the decent stage (which should still be on it since it didn’t land on the moon) refuel it and transport a pilot to it one it has been towed into earth orbit and fly it down to earth. It was designed to land on the moon, the earth is a bigger target so it should be easier…well…except for the 6 times more powerful gravitational field.

          1. I was watching a documentary of Apollo 10 on the Science Channel a few nights ago.
            I was really enjoying it.
            Then my daughter came home from soccer and changed the channel.
            B^(

      3. Look at the bright side, Jeff will almost certainly be a billionaire, Trump will have been revealed to not be one and Bezos will be the last of the two still standing.

        Oh, the Koch Brothers will be dead or mere brains living in jars of nutrient solution.

    2. Space history collection, is not so much Musk’s thing.

      A more likely scenario – If Musk gets the cargo variant of Starship/BFR operational, Steve Jurvetson – an rabid space artifact collector, SpaceX board member, and the guy responsible for managing the funds that made up some of SpaceX key investor rounds – funds a mission.

  1. For those who understand freedom units more easily than metric, according to this article, 842 lbs of rock and dust were brought back from the moon in total, the whole Saturn V launch vehicle weighed about 3,307 tons, and the command module weighs about 12,346 lbs.

    Object 2018AV2 is over 34,175,415 miles away from Earth. In July 2037, it will only be about 3,976,775 miles away.

    I converted these so that I could more easily wrap my head around the scale of these missions. I hope someone else will find this useful.

  2. While a recovery mission would naturally be expensive and take years to complete, it should be noted that the orbits of Earth and Snoopy actually make it fairly easy. Well, as “easy” as anything gets in space, anyway. It’s low orbital inclination and speed relative to us makes getting to it very straightforward.

    The recovery vehicle just needs to go into a slightly higher heliocentric phasing orbit and allow Snoopy to catch up to it. Once captured, it would go into a tighter phasing orbit to get on an intercept course with Earth. It would take a few km/s of delta-v and several years in deep space to make the trip, but all told it should be a walk in the park for anything designed to be making regular trips to Mars (I.E. SpaceX’s Starship).

    Of course, this all assumes that SpaceX actually builds the “duckbill” version of Starship that can capture satellites. It’s something Musk showed off early on, but I haven’t seen mention of it in quite some time.

    1. I think the best way to capture it would be to use something with solar electric engines like on the Dawn space probe.
      The bus can pretty much be derived from an off the shelf comsat bus like the SSL 1300 or Boeing 702.
      Dawn itself was based on Orbital’s Star bus.
      Then bring it back to low Earth orbit and then something with a large cargobay like cargo Starship or Skylon can pick it up.

  3. For anyone interested in a first-person account of Apollo 10, I can recommend Gene Cernan’s autobiography “The Last Man On The Moon”. A few hair-raising moments are described in vivid detail.

    One of the other Apollo 10 astronauts, John Young, was something of a legendary figure — he was on two Gemini missions, then went to the Moon twice (once in orbit on Apollo 10 and then on the surface with Apollo 16), became a senior manager at NASA and flew several of the early Space Shuttle missions.

    1. “John Young, was something of a legendary figure”

      I can’t attest to it’s veracity, but I remember reading or watching an interview where it was mentioned that doctors monitoring his vitals during a launch thought his equipment had malfunctioned, because his heart rate never increased. If it’s true, wow, talk about calm under pressure! Given how calm and soft spoken he was in interviews, I’m inclined to believe it.

    1. My first thought when I read this is “Snoopy would never fit in a Shuttle bay!” But then I remembered Tom Nardi’s report from his date with Atlantis, and I realized Snoopy would probably have rattled around in there a bit. They’d probably need a few bungees or something ;-)

      1. Looks like the Lunar Ascent Module was Height: 9 ft 3.5 in (2.832 m) Width: 14 ft 1 in (4.29 m) Depth: 13 ft 3 in (4.04 m). Shuttle cargo bay was 60-foot (18 m)-long and could hold cylindrical payloads up to 15 feet (4.6 m) in diameter.

        So yeah, it’d fit.

    2. Unfortunately, it might not fit in the cargo bay of a space shuttle. With less than 6 inches of clearance on a side, that leaves precious little room for attachment hardware able to secure it against reentry G-forces.

      More importantly, even if it could fit, the fact that it’s far beyond low earth orbit, means it would be out of the range of a space shuttle to retrieve.

      1. It’s amazing how often references to this show pop up. It’s such a bizarre and amusing show that it makes a permanent impression on anyone who sees it. :-) Flying in a repurposed cement mixer to the moon…what a hoot!!! :-)

    1. I would argue that maritime salvage rules apply, since Snoopy has been adrift in the Solar System for 50 years. Salvage laws are based on the fact that “a person helping another at sea is putting himself and his vessel at risk and should be appropriately rewarded.” I can’t see how it would be any less true when sailing a spacecraft than when sailing an ocean-going tug.

      If it applies, the salvor is entitled to a percentage of the cost of the vessel, the cargo, and the bunker. Pretty sure the bunkers are devoid of fuel at this point, and the only cargo is Stafford and Cernan’s poop, so it would come down to an inflation-adjusted value of the vessel. One could argue that since all of Snoopy’s sister vessels were either lost or made into museum pieces, the one remaining embodiment of the program captures all its development cost. So the salvor has a claim on a percentage of $21 billion in 2016 dollars.

      Of course, I’m no space lawyer; bird law is more my line. And I’m sure it’s all moot because if it ever happens, whatever remains of the US government will just take whatever the hell they want, and probably fine the salvor for trespassing on government property or something.

      1. No, not maritime salvage. A fundamental principle of salvage is that the vessel salvaged must be “In peril” i.e. exposed to imminent damage or destruction (or nowdays threatening environmental damage). The owner or master also has to agree to the assistance, where reasonable. You can’t just rock up to a drifting vessel, tow it somewhere and say “Now I own half”. If maritime law applied, the recovery team would almost certainly be limited to a towage fee, and not even that if Snoopy’s orbit was regarded as being “anchored or at a mooring”. Even if it was Salvage, say it was going to plough into an asteroid soon, the value wouldn’t capture all development costs, for example the assessed value of a ship does not incorporate the cost of the shipyard simply because there are no other vessels built by it afloat. As the vessel in question is not insured, cannot be replaced with a new equivalent and has no economic function, its value would probably be its anticipated sale-at-auction price. If it were Salvage, an award would be a share of that value plus a proportion of direct costs. Building a rocket to go get it probably wouldn’t be covered, but launch and mission expenses could. Much more likely than voluntary salvage is “Salvage under Contract” where the owner and the salvor pre-agree a fee for service.

      2. Maritime salvage rules don’t seem to really apply here. It is a spacecraft, not an ocean going vessel. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is pretty clear on the issue. Anything launched into space, or used as part of a launch into space (including stuff that falls into and drifts or sinks in the ocean) remains both the property of and the responsibility of the country with jurisdiction over the launch. Countries are even responsible for what their private corporations launch.

      3. Why would maritime salvage laws override the Outer Space Treaty of 1967? It’s a spacecraft, not an ocean going vessel. Per the Outer Space Treaty, anything launched into space, or that falls back to Earth (even if it drifts on or sinks in an ocean) remains the property and responsibility of the country from which it was launched.

  4. The plans should still exist for manufacturing a docking adapter. Send out a capture ‘tug’ to bring it back to a high Earth orbit, then down to a lower one. Build and launch an aeroshell with heat shield and parachute to safely bring it back to the surface.

    1. The last thing they did was to test the emergency explosive jettison of the docking ring, so there’s no docking adaptor attached to it any more, just a hatch.
      See here at 108:24:37. There’s also a linked video of the separation where you can see the ripped out section where the docking collar had been attached.

      1. The best way to both capture it and secure might be to have something the grabs the inside of the ascent engine bell or the points where the explosive bolts separated it from the descent stage.

  5. Parts of the Saturn V rockets quickly reached terminal velocity and did not “burn up” in the atmosphere. No part of any Saturn V rocket ever made it to the moon. The Command Module, Service Module, and Lunar Excursion Module were the payload, not parts of the rocket.

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