Luna: Landmark Space Probes
First to photograph the Earth's only natural satellite
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
Luna, a series of Soviet space probes developed for the exploration of the Moon, produced the first probes to pass near, to impact, and to photograph the Earth's only natural satellite, and the first spacecraft to land on, to orbit around, and to automatically return samples from this celestial object. The first three achievements were accomplished in 1959 by Luna 1, 2, and 3. Each of these spacecraft weighed about 275 kg (600 lb).
A series of heavier Luna probes, each weighing about 900 kg (2,000 lb), began in 1963 with the goal of a hard but survivable landing on the Moon. After an agonizing series of failures and near misses, Luna 9 made a landing on Feb. 3, 1966, and several television images of the surface were sent back to the Earth. Luna 10 was placed into orbit around the Moon in 1966, becoming the first artificial lunar satellite. The newest and heaviest versions of Luna, each weighing about 4,500 kg (10,000 lb), began flight-testing in 1969, but a long series of booster and spacecraft failures plagued this program. The heavy spacecraft were designed for particular tasks:Luna 16, 20, and 24 picked up samples of lunar soil and returned them to the Earth; Luna 17 and 21 carried Lunokhod "moon jeeps" that traversed the Moon's surface under remote control; and Luna 19 and 22 carried out extended lunar orbital surveys.
Bibliography: Newton, D. E., U.S. and Soviet Space Programs (1988); Smolders, P. L., Soviets in Space (1974); Taylor, S. R., Planetary Science (1982); Woods, D. R., "A Review of the Soviet Lunar Exploration Programme," Spaceflight, July –August 1976.