Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Lunokhod 1 and the first tire tracks on another world
Today, we take images of wheeled craft trundling on the surface of the Moon or Mars for granted. Almost a half century ago, a wheeled craft rolling around on alien worlds – was unheard of. On Nov. 17, 1970, the Soviet Union changed all of that. Luna 17, also known as Lunik 17, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrone located in present-day Kazakhstan on Nov. 10, 1970. The U.S.S.R employed the Proton 8K82K+ Blok D booster to ferry the spacecraft out of Earth’s gravitational well and on its way to Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor. It would touch down in the lunar regolith about one week later.
The spacecraft entered into lunar orbit on Nov. 15. After two days of checks, the tank-esque lander conducted a soft landing in the Moon’s “Sea of Rains” (Mare Imbrium ). Engineers incorporated the lander with dual ramps.
Lunokhod 1 used one of these to descend to the Moon’s surface on Nov. 17. It marked the start of a scientific tour-de-force lasting more than 322 days in which the robotic explorer employed the following scientific instruments: Photographic imaging system, odometer/speedometer, Laser reflector, X-ray spectrometer, penetrometer, radiation detectors and an X-ray telescope.
Lunokhod-1 was, in essence, a tank, consisting of a central tub, with a hatch at its top and eight wheels. Each of these wheels has its own independent power source, a trait shared by present-day Martian rovers. The craft transmitted data via a conical antenna as well as another, helical antenna.
The goggle-eyed robot captured imagery via four television cameras and helped gather data via impactors. These devices helped to gather information about the composition and properties of the lunar soil.
The “lid” located at the top of the robot, had solar cells affixed to its underside, which allowed it to collect life-giving energy from the Sun’s rays. One of the things that Soviet engineers had to take into consideration for the mission – was the long lunar night. As such, Lunokhod 1 came equipped with a polonium-210 radioisotope heater unit. This device allowed the various instruments on the rover to be maintained at operating temperature.
Setting the standard for future wheeled robots, Lunokhod 1 lived far longer than Soviet planners had intended. Given a life of three lunar “days” (three months) – the craft lasted more than three times that amount – a total of 11 lunar “days” (eleven months).
Lunokhod 1 ceased operations on Oct. 4, 1971 – on the anniversary of the historic Sputnik 1 mission. All total, Lunokhod 1 travelled some 7 miles (11 kilometers). To this day, Lunokhod 1 is providing answers about the Moon – for those willing to listen.
By 2010, the last location of Lunokhod 1 – was unknown. On March 17 of that year, Albert Abdrakhimov, found both the lander and the Lunakhod 1 rover. The discovery was made via NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO ) spacecraft. Within the probe’s image M114185541RC – were the telltale traces of the rover’s tracks. This would mark the start of the rover’s new “life.”
The following month, the Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation (APOLLO ) team used LRO imagery to find the rover. Rather than just snap a picture of Lunokhod’s current location. The rover’s reflector was utilized – and turned out to be one of the most efficient reflectors presently operating on the surface of the Moon.
“We shined a laser on Lunokhod 1’s position, and we were stunned by the power of the reflection,” says Tom Murphy of UC San Diego, who leads the research team that’s putting the old robot back to work. “Lunokhod 1 is talking to us loudly and clearly.”
This article was edited on Nov. 17, 2014 at 11:31 p.m. EDT to correct a mistake in the first paragraph
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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.
A nice piece about a long forgotten (but important) lunar mission. But, not only was Lunokhod 1 the first extraterrestrial rover, it also carried an X-ray telescope that made months of astronomical observations from the lunar surface making it the first extraterrestrial astronomical observatory. This beat Chang’e 3, which Chinese officials claimed was the first long-term astronomical observatory on the lunar surface, by 43 years!
A minor item–rather than half a *decade* ago, this would have been more than half a *century*. And that’s really an awesome fact when you put it that way.