By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union, r


that they would lose the race with the United States to put the first human on the Moon, redirected

their focus on a new aspect of lunar exploration. A year after the U.S. Apollo 11 mission touched down

on the Moon, the


sent the first of a new breed of off-world explorers – the Lunokhod 1

robotic rover – to the



with the launch of its Luna 17 lander.

Though it was not celebrated in the United States,

1 seemed to be the “darling of the European press,

” Dave Williams, planetary scientist at NASA’s National Space Science Data Center, said in an Oct. 31 phone interview.

The rover was as popular to the Europeans

as any robot in the movies or a television show, he said.

Launched Nov. 10, 1970, aboard a Proton rocket from BaikonurCosmodrome

, the

Luna 17 lander left its Earth parking orbit and entered lunar orbit Nov. 15.

The lander

touched down on the Moon’s Sea of Rains Nov. 18.

Upon landing, the

756-kilogram Lunokhod 1 descended from the lander’s twin ramps

. A

five-man team navigated the rover remotely using

the robot’s four low-resolution television cameras, including two stereoscopic ones placed in the aft of the rover. The control team experienced visual delays of up to 20 seconds, Williams said.

Eight independently controlled wheels set the 1.35-meter-high,

2.15-meter-wide Lunokhod 1 along the lunar surface at a top speed of 100 meters per hour, which the team drove via radio signals.

Powering the rover was a deployed

shell-like solar panel

that rotated

to capture the greatest amount of sunlight

. Radioactive polonium powered Lunokhod 1 during the lunar nights, Williams said.

Extendable arm-like devices and an X-ray spectrometer performed separate

lunar soil analyses.

The last communication with Lunokhod 1 was Sept. 14, 1971, and

the mission officially ended Oct. 4 of that year –



three-month design life.


1 was not the first lunar rover to be developed by the

Soviets, a

concept that was o

riginally conceived in the early 1960s.

In February 1969, an earlier

rover failed

to reach the Moon after

its booster exploded during accent, according to the NASA’s

Deep Space Chronicle: A Chronology of Deep Space and Planetary Probes 1958-2000.

Following the success of Lunokhod 1,




the Soviets launched Lunokhod 2 with

the Luna 21 lander aboard a Proton rocket from Baikonur.

While similar to its predecessor, Lunokhod 2 was

twice as fast and experienced

only three-second camera delays

, Williams said. A third rover was built but never launched. Although

uncertain, Williams said he suspects

the program died out due to a loss of



While the Lunokhod missions – and the earlier Luna 16 lunar sample return mission – provided a way for the Soviets to “save face,” they also provided true science benefits, Williams said.

1 covered more than 10 kilometers

– a greater distance

than the Apollo missions,

although the Apollo missions visited more sites.

With its washtub-like frame and eight-spoked wheels, Lunokhod 1 did not resemble an advanced space exploration vehicle. Yet the basic design for robotic rovers – mesh wheels, solar panels and a radioactive heating mechanism for night – has not changed much, Williams said. “I think it points out they did a good job of planning it,” he said.

Williams said

NASA still can draw upon the successes and shortfalls of the Lunokhod rovers when developing the unmanned phase of its planned Moon mission

. A new breed of lunar rovers would experience similar seconds-long

delays to the Lunokhods, unlike the 15-20 minute-long delays experienced by NASA’s Mars rovers,

he said.