Nov. 10, 1970: The Soviets Send Robots to the Moon

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  Space News Business

Nov. 10, 1970: The Soviets Send Robots to the Moon

By CLINTON PARKS
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 09 November 2007
02:12 pm ET





Washington



By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union, r






ealizing




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




Soviets




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




robotic rover – to the




lunar




surface




with the launch of its Luna 17 lander.

























































Though it was not celebrated in the United States,




Lunokhod
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 –




surpassing




its




three-month design life.

Lun




okhod
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,




in




January




1973




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




funding




.



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.

Lunokhod
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.