As the Sun set in Western Australia on Wednesday 30 August, the Moon rose from the horizon in a particularly striking fashion.
This ‘super blue Moon’ was a rare combination of a calendar blue Moon – the second full Moon in a single calendar month – and a supermoon – a full Moon that occurs when the Moon is at the closest point to Earth in its orbit.
Like many interested in this rare phenomenon, ESA’s New Norcia deep space antenna turned its attention to Earth’s natural satellite as it came into view. But it wasn’t just the Moon that ESA was interested in.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched Chandrayaan-3 on 14 July on a mission to, among other things, achieve India’s first soft landing on another celestial body.
On 23 August, the Chandrayaan-3 Lander Module successfully touched down on the lunar surface, achieving that goal and making India just the fourth nation to achieve such a landing.
ESA is providing ground station support to the mission: using its antennas around the world to communicate with the spacecraft, to send commands to it that control it in flight and on the surface, and to receive important information about the health of the spacecraft and data from its scientific instruments.
Once in a blue Moon
ESA’s New Norcia station, located roughly 140 km north of Perth, Western Australia, is one of those supporting Chandrayaan-3. Yesterday, a number of fortunate coincidences came together to offer a rare view of this support in action.
The super blue Moon was at its brightest for observers in Western Australia just after the local sunset on 30 August. And it was at this time, at around 17:30 AWST (11:30 CEST), that the New Norcia antenna began its latest data exchange session with the Chandrayaan-3 Lander Module on the surface.
The unusual brightness and the location of the Moon in the sky aligned perfectly to make it visible in the live webcam aimed at the New Norcia antenna for almost the entire three-and-a-half hour communication window.
A super blue Moon is rare, a Moon landing is rare, ESA ground stations supporting a mission on the surface of the Moon is rare, and the Moon being visible in the New Norcia webcam for a prolonged period of time is very rare.
But together, they allowed us to capture the ESA antenna chasing the super blue Moon and the Chandrayaan-3 Lander across the Australian sky.
The Chandrayaan-3 surface operations have now reached their halfway mark. The planned activities will come to an end with the end of the lunar daylight. At this point, the solar panels on the Lander and Rover will no longer be able to generate power.
Their survival into the next lunar day would be the kind of thing that only happens once in a blue Moon.
Note that the blue colour surrounding the Moon in these images is the result of atmospheric and camera effects. The Moon itself does not change colour.