Lunokhod 2 Transmits Data

The USA vs. Russia space race is more nuanced than many of us realize.  We’re already aware that the big push happened in the 1950s with the public’s learning of the Sputnik satellite program of the USSR.  The Soviet Union maintained a fairly comfortable lead in the space race early on.  The lead changed hands a few times during the 1960s and then the USA captured a huge lead in the Summer of 1969 with the first landing and return of humans onto the surface of the Moon and back home to Earth.

Lunokhod2-prototypeIn the background of the US missions to the Moon and other planets was the Soviet space program, that received only superficial press coverage in North America.  An especially advanced mission of the Soviets, was their lunar rover activity, the Lunokhod Program.

The plan began as a scouting mission to survey possible sites for future manned lunar landings and possible bases.  Originally the purpose was to provide a sort of homing beacon to facilitate precise landing information for cosmonauts.  However, after the successful U.S. Apollo landings, the Lunokhod rovers contributed to the legend that the USSR did not want to risk a manned flight to the Moon at that point in time. This is when the Soviet efforts took the “backseat” during world press coverage of outer space news.Lunokhod2-poster

The first of the two Lunokhod vehicles was contained within the Luna 17 lander craft.  After a soft touchdown onto the Moon, on November 17, 1970, Lunokhod 1 drove down the ramp and began its excursion.  Operators in the Soviet Union controlled the vehicle remotely for the next ten months. This was the first instance of a “drone” vehicle that could be maneuvered over the surface of a space body other than the Earth. Over that time, Soviet officials said that Lunokhod 1 had traveled more than ten kilometres. The extra-terrestrial distance race had begun.

The machine sent back information about the composition of lunar soil including engineering measurements.  Close up photos of the moon were also of value to scientists on Earth.

Luna 21 Lander capsule

Luna 21 Lander capsule

About two years later, Luna 21, containing the Lunokhod 2 rover, was launched from the Bailkonur Cosmodrome atop a four stage Proton rocket into earth orbit on January 8, 1973. Later that morning, the final stage of the rocket was fired to send the vehicle towards the Moon.  On January 12th, Luna 21 attained its circular lunar orbit. After two orbit lowering retro-rocket firings, Luna 21 descended towards the Moon and completed its soft landing onto the lunar surface, within the Le Monnier crater at Mare Serenitatis.

Le Monnier crater

Le Monnier crater

Early the next day, January 16, 1973, Lunokhod 2 drove down the ramps of Luna 21’s lander onto the Lunar surface and parked itself automatically. This is when, 41 years ago, today, that Lunokhod 2 began its data communications between the Moon and the Soviet Union.

The tub shaped vehicle featured eight, two speed solar powered electric motor driven, Lunokhod2-artistrenditionwheels. There were four television cameras, three for panoramic reporting and another for the use of the five-man controller team on Earth to navigate the rover.  Power was supplied by a solar panel mounted inside of the round, hinged lid over the instrument bay.

Lunokhod 2 was designed to operate for three lunar days, that is about three Earth months. The rover exceeded the designers expectations.  All told, Lunokhod 2 officially traveled 37 kilometres, transmitted more than 80,000 simple photographs and 86 television panoramic views.  The equipment conducted more than 700 tests of the lunar soil. The rover was declared officially dead on June 3, 1973.

Some new information about Lunokhod 2, and its total distance traveled, has come to light, as of last summer.  NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped images of the Lunokhod 2 and Luna 21 lander vehicles on the Moon. A team of Russian scientists has updated the distance to 42 kilometres (26 miles).  The numbers have been verified by American observers, too.

The old, 37 kilometre reading was based on the distance between the lander and the final parking place of the rover.  The American reconnaissance photos have demonstrated that Lunokhod 2 actually backtracked many times and traveled in circles to capture the panoramic views.  These maneuvers added to the extra tally. This means that the Soviet Union’s Space Agency still holds the record for extra-terrestrial distance, at least for awhile, especially within time parameters.  The closest competitor has been NASA’s Mars rover “Opportunity” which had equalled the old Lunokhod 2 figure.

All things considered, the distance records are not really important to scientists.  All of the drone robotic rovers have achieved important scientific milestones.  It’s also relevant to note that the USSR’s efforts halted when the Soviet Union, as a nation, was dissolved in December of 1991.

До свидания (Do svidanya)


The Blue Jay of Happiness thanks NASA and ФКА (Roscosmos) for background information.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
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