Soviet Lunar Exploration

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After the Soviet Union lost the race to put a human on the Moon, it instead concentrated on robotic missions to explore the lunar surface and survey sites for manned landings and lunar bases. Two rare artifacts in our Launch to the Moon exhibit - both on loan from the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center - tell a story that few in the United States have ever heard.

Luna 16 Robotic Probe

The Luna 16 Robotic Probe was the first unmanned spacecraft to land on the Moon, robotically scoop up a small amount of lunar soil and then launch the sample back into space to return to Earth. The 12-day mission by the Soviet Union took place months after the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 missions that had already returned lunar samples to Earth.

When the unmanned Luna 16 Robotic Probe set down in the Sea of Fertility in September 1970, it was the first time a spacecraft had landed on the Moon during the gloomy two-week lunar night. Within an hour of landing, a drill onboard the probe collected a sample of lunar soil. Then, mission controllers in Kazakhstan verified the collection and transmitted the order to fire the ascent stage of Luna 16. Three days later, the soil sample was returned to the Earth, marking the first time a sample from another world had been retrieved purely by machine.

Scientists were fascinated to learn of slight differences in the chemical composition of lunar soil returned by Luna 16 compared to the Apollo material. The dark, powdery basalt material (pictured, left) was found to be very similar to that obtained from another mare site by Apollo 12, but differed slightly from Apollo 11's samples in the levels of titanium and zirconium oxide.

The Luna 16 spacecraft consisted of two attached stages, an ascent stage mounted on top of a descent stage.

The descent stage was a cylindrical body with four protruding landing legs, fuel tanks, landing radar and a dual descent engine complex and was equipped with a television camera, radiation and temperature monitors, telecommunications equipment and an extendable arm with a drilling rig.

The ascent stage was a smaller cylinder with a rounded top that carried a cylindrical hermetically sealed soil sample container inside a re-entry capsule. The actual Luna 16 Robotic Probe was 10 ft. (3.1 m) tall and, with its legs extended, 11 ft. (3.3 m) in diameter. It weighed 4,145 lbs. (1,880 kg). The model on display in the El Pomar Space Gallery is half-scale and was constructed in the Soviet Union.

Two additional missions by the Soviets - Luna 20 in 1972 and Luna 24 in 1976 - also returned samples from the Moon.

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Lunokhod Rover

The Lunokhod lunar rover - one of only a few ever to be displayed outside of the former Soviet Union - was part of the Luna program, a bold series ofexperiments that sent nine unmanned remote-controlled robot spacecraft into lunar orbit and to the surface of the moon. Lunokhod means Moonwalker in Russian.

Two of the spacecraft that successfully landed on the Moon - Luna 17 and Luna 21 - carried Lunokhod rovers, which, remote-controlled from Earth, explored the lunar surface and sent back large amounts of scientific information and photographs.

Secretly launched by the Soviet Union atop a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 10, 1970, Lunokhod 1 was carried aboard the Luna 17 lunar lander to the Sea of Rains where it explored the lunar surface for 11 months. Lunokhod 1 traveled seven miles (11 km) and explored the Mare Imbrium, or Sea of Showers.

Lunokhod 2 followed the Soviet Union's first lunar rover by riding aboard the Luna 21 lander, which was launched atop a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on January 8, 1973. The second rover landed on the Moon near a crater called LeMonier in the Sea of Serenity and then operated for about four months, traveling 26 miles (42 km). Like its Lunokhod 1 predecessor, it televised pictures of the lunar surface back to Earth and employed a suite of science instruments to observe solar X-rays, measure local magnetic fields and study mechanical properties of the lunar soil.

The Lunokhod is formed of a tub-like compartment with a large convex lid on eight independently powered wheels. Approximately the size of a Volkswagen Beetle - 4 ft. high (1.35 m) by 7 ft. long (2.15 m), with a wheelbase of 5 ft. (1.6 m) - it was equipped with antennas, television cameras, extendable devices to impact the lunar soil for density measurements and mechanical property tests, an X-ray spectrometer, an X-ray telescope, a cosmic ray detector and a laser device. The vehicle, which weighed 1,852 lbs. (840 kg), was powered by batteries that could be recharged during the lunar day by a solar cell array mounted on the underside of the lid. During the lunar nights, the lid could be closed so that an internal heat source could keep the internal components at operating temperature. It could travel 0.5 to 1.2 mph (.8 to 1.93 kph). Lunokhod 1 and 2 were remotely guided by teams of ground-based engineers (pictured, above left).

The full-scale prototype unit on display at the Space Foundation was built by the Russian company that constructed the retired Lunokhods that still rest on the surface of the Moon.

Both Lunokhods remain on the surface of the Moon and often are targeted by distance-measuring lasers that are beamed from Earth to reflect off devices attached to each rover. While the location of Lunokhod 2 was known for years, the resting place of Lunokhod 1 was only recently identified in 2010 when images from high-resolution cameras on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter pinpointed the exact spot. Such distance measurements helps scientists track the Moon's slow drift away from Earth and better understand what's occurring inside the Moon's core. Pictured, right, Lunokhod 1 on the Moon with inset of the actual rover.

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