50 Years Ago We Got Our First Picture from the Moon

On this date half a century ago the Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft made humanity’s first-ever soft landing on the surface of the Moon. Launched from Baikonur on Jan. 31, 1966, Luna 9 lander touched down within Oceanus Procellarum — somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.08°N, 64.37°E* — at 18:44:52 UTC on Feb. 3. The fourth successful mission in the USSR’s long-running Luna series, Luna 9 sent us our first views of the Moon’s surface from the surface and, perhaps even more importantly, confirmed that a landing by spacecraft was indeed possible.

The entire Luna 9 lander was made up of two main parts: a 1,439-kg flight/descent stage which contained retro-rockets and orientation engines, navigation systems, and various fuel tanks, and a 99-kg (218-lb) pressurized “automatic lunar station” that contained all the science and imaging instruments along with batteries, heaters, and a radio transmitter.

When a probe on the descent stage detected contact with the lunar surface, the spherical station — encased in an inflated airbag — was jettisoned to soft-land a safe distance away — after a bit of bouncing, of course; the lander hit the Moon’s surface at about 22 km/hr (13 mph)!

The Luna 9 lunar station lander (NSSDC)
The Luna 9 lunar station lander. (NSSDC)

Once the airbag cushions deflated Luna 9, like a shiny metal flower, opened its four “petals,” extended its radio antennas and began taking panoramic television camera images of its surroundings, at the time lit by a very low Sun on the lunar horizon. Received on Earth early on Feb. 4, 1966, they were the first pictures taken from the surface of the Moon and in fact the first images acquired from the surface of another world.

Read more: What Other Worlds Have We Landed On?

Other missions, both Soviet and American, had captured close-up images of the Moon in previous years but Luna 9 was the first to soft-land (i.e., not crash land) and operate from the surface. The spacecraft continued transmitting image data to Earth until its batteries ran out on the night of Feb. 6, 1966. A total of four panoramas were acquired by Luna 9 over the course of three days, as well as data on radiation levels on the Moon’s surface (not to mention the valuable knowledge that a spacecraft wouldn’t just completely sink into the lunar regolith!)

Four months later, on June 2, 1966, NASA’s Surveyor 1 would become the first U.S. spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon. Surveyor 1 would send back science data and 11,240 photos over the course of a month in operation but, in terms of the space “race,” Luna 9 will always be remembered as first place winner.

Want to see more pictures from Luna 9 and other Soviet Moon missions? Check out Don P. Mitchell’s dedicated page here, and learn more about the Luna program on Robert Christy’s Zarya site.

Sources: NASA/NSSDC, LPI, Robert Christy/Zarya

*Or is it 7.14°N/60.36°W? Even today it’s still not precisely known where Luna 9 landed, but researchers at Arizona State University are actively searching through Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera pictures in an attempt to spot the “lost” spacecraft and/or evidence of its historic landing. Read more about that here.

 

What is the Moon’s Real Name?

We call it the Moon, but… what’s its real name? You know, the name that scientists call the Moon.

As of 2015, there are 146 official moons in the Solar System, and then another 27 provisional moons, who are still waiting on the status of their application. All official moons have names after gods or Shakespeare characters. Names like Callisto, Titan, or Prometheus. But there’s one moon in the Solar System with a super boring name… the one you’re most familiar with: Moon.

But come on, that’s such a boring name. Clearly that’s just its common name. So what’s the Moon’s real name? Its scientific name. The neato cool name. Like Krelon, Krona, Avron or Mua’Dib.

Are you ready for this? The answer is: The Moon. Here’s some hand-waving and excuse making. Really, this is our own damn fault. Until Galileo first turned his telescope to the skies in 1610, and realized that Jupiter had tiny spots of light orbiting around it, astronomers had no idea other planets had moons.

Humans have been around for a few hundred thousand years, and the Moon was a familiar object in the sky. We’ve only had evidence of other moons for a little over 400 years. We didn’t collectively understand the Earth was a planet until Copernicus developed the heliocentric model of the Solar System.

We still have a little trouble with that, even though we’re firing a probe directly at the Sun. We didn’t give into the idea that the Sun was a star until recently. Giordano Bruno proposed the idea in 1590 and we burned him at the stake for suggesting it. Seriously, I can’t stare at this any longer. Yes, we’re awful. I’m going to talk about “the Moon” again.

Scientists classify the Moon as a natural satellite. Somehow this helps distinguish it from the artificial satellites we’ve been launching for the last 60 years.

High resolution photo map of the moon's far side imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mare Moscoviense lies at upper left and Tsiolkovsky at lower left. Click for a hi res image. Credit: NASA
High resolution photo map of the moon’s far side imaged by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

What about terms like “Luna”? That’s Latin for Moon. It’s not an official title or scientific term, but ooh, fancy. Latin.

If you want to make sure people know you’re talking about “The Moon” and not “a moon”, it’s all about capitalization. Put a capital “M” in front of “oon” and you’re good to go.

The name of our solar system? It’s the Solar System (again, capitalized). Our galaxy? The Galaxy with a capital G. The universe? Capital U Universe.

What about the Sun? Isn’t it “sol”? That’s just the Latin word for “sun”. Helios? Greek God version of the Sun.

If we ever discover that we’re really living in a multiverse, we’ll need to give those other universes names. And people will wonder what the actual official title is for the Universe. I’ll make another video when that happens, I promise.

The official advice from the International Astronomical Union, who are the people you’re still mad at about Pluto, is that the capitalization is what makes the definition.

Supermoon through the clouds on September 9, 2014. Credit and copyright: scul-001 on Flickr.
Supermoon through the clouds on September 9, 2014. Credit and copyright: scul-001 on Flickr.

Not everyone in the world adheres to the capitalization so carefully, which can tend to some confusion. Are we talking about the sun or the Sun? As someone who writes space articles, let me assure you, messing this up will light up the comments section with “Which is better Deep Space 9 vs. Voyager” level of shrill all caps screaming.

Calling it “the Moon” is kind of boring, but that’s only because scientific discovery has pushed our understanding of the Universe so far out. It’s amazing to think that we’ve discovered so many other moons in the Solar System, and soon, we’ll find them around other stars.

So, for now it’s The Universe. When we find others, this one will still be THE Capital-U Universe and the new ones will be Nimoy and Sagan and Clarke.

Why don’t we give the Moon a new name. Something with a little more razzle-dazzle. Make your suggestions in the comments below. Alternately, suggest a fancy Latin name of “Guide to Space”, I’ve got dibs on “Aether Libris”.

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Is It Time to Return to the Moon?

Humans haven’t set foot on the Moon — or any other world outside of our own, for that matter — since Cernan and Schmitt departed the lunar surface on December 14, 1972. That will make 40 years on that date this coming December. And despite dreams of moon bases and lunar colonies, there hasn’t even been a controlled landing there since the Soviet Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976 (not including impacted probes.) So in light of the challenges and costs of such an endeavor, is there any real value in a return to the Moon?

Some scientists are saying yes.

Researchers from the UK, Germany and The Netherlands have submitted a paper to the journal Planetary and Space Science outlining the scientific importance of future lunar surface missions. Led by Ian A. Crawford from London’s Birkbeck College, the paper especially focuses on the value of the Moon in the study of our own planet and its formation, the development of the Earth-Moon system as well as other rocky worlds  and even its potential contribution in life science and medicinal research.

Even though some research on the lunar surface may be able to be performed by robotic missions, Crawford et al. ultimately believe that “addressing them satisfactorily will require an end to the 40-year hiatus of lunar surface exploration.”

The team’s paper outlines many different areas of research that would benefit from future exploration, either manned or robotic. Surface composition, lunar volcanism, cratering history — and thus insight into a proposed period of “heavy bombardment” that seems to have affected the inner Solar System over 3.8 billion years ago — as well as the presence of water ice could be better investigated with manned missions, Crawford et al. suggest.

(Read: A New Look At Apollo Samples Supports Ancient Impact Theory)

In addition, the “crashed remains of unsterilized spacecraft” on the Moon warrant study, proposes Crawford’s team. No, we’re not talking about alien spaceships — unless the aliens are us! The suggestion is that the various machinery we’ve sent to the lunar surface since the advent of the Space Age may harbor Earthly microbes that could be returned for study after decades in a lunar environment. Such research could shed new light on how life can — or can’t — survive in a space environment, as well as how long such “contaminants” might linger on another world.

Crawford’s team also argues that only manned missions could offer all-important research on the long-term effects of low-gravity environments on human physiology, as well as how to best sustain exploration crews in space. If we are to ever become a society with the ability to explore and exist beyond our own planet, such knowledge is critical.

And outside of lunar exploration itself, the Moon offers a place from which to perform deeper study of the Universe. The lunar farside, shielded as it is from radio transmissions and other interference from Earth, would be a great place for radio astronomy — especially in the low-frequency range of 10-30 MHz, which is absorbed by Earth’s ionosphere and is thus relatively unavailable to ground-based telescopes. A radio observatory on the lunar farside would have a stable platform from which to observe some of the earliest times of the Universe, between the Big Bang and the formation of the first stars.

Of course, before anything can be built on the Moon or retrieved from its surface, serious plans must be made for such missions. Fortunately, says Crawford’s team, the 2007 Global Exploration Strategy — a framework for exploration created by 13 space agencies from around the world — puts the Moon as the “nearest and first goal” for future missions, as well as Mars and asteroids. Yet with subsequent budget cuts for NASA (a key player for many exploration missions) when and how that goal will be reached still remains to be seen.

See the team’s full paper on arXiv.org here, and check out a critical review on MIT’s Technology Review.

“…this long hiatus in lunar surface exploration has been to the detriment of lunar and planetary science, and indeed of other sciences also, and that the time has come to resume the robotic and human exploration of the surface of the Moon.”

— Ian A. Crawford,  Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Birkbeck College, UK

 Top image from “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” by Georges Méliès, 1902. Second image: First photo of the far side of the Moon, acquired by the Soviet Luna-3 spacecraft on Oct. 7, 1959.

Revisiting The First Rover

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Before there was Curiosity, before Spirit, and Opportunity, and even long before Sojourner, there was Lunokhod 1, the Soviet Union’s lunar rover that explored Mare Imbrium from November of 1970 to September the following year. It was a curious-looking machine, a steampunk fantasy reminiscent of something out of a Jules Verne novel. But until the Mars Exploration Rovers nearly 40 years later, Lunokhod 1 held the record for the longest-operating robotic rover on the surface of another world.

These images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) are the most detailed yet of the now-silent Soviet rover and its lander, Luna 17.

The lander, Luna 17, was launched from Earth orbit on November 10, 1970, and entered lunar orbit five days later. It successfully soft-landed in Mare Imbrium on November 17 and deployed the Lunokhod (“moon walker” in Russian) rover, which was powered by batteries that were recharged via solar power during the lunar day.

Luna 17 and Lunokhod 1's tracks. (NASA/GSFC/ASU)

The 5600 kg (12,345 lb.) Lunokhod 1 boasted a suite of scientific tools for exploring the lunar surface. It was equipped with a cone-shaped antenna, a highly directional helical antenna, four television cameras, and special extendable devices to impact the lunar soil for soil density and mechanical property tests.

An x-ray spectrometer, an x-ray telescope, cosmic-ray detectors, and a laser device were also included.

The super-steampunk Lunokhod 1 rover. (NASA/GSFC)

Operating for nearly 300 days — almost four times longer than planned — by the time it officially ceased operations in October 1971 Lunokhod 1 had traveled 10,540 meters and had transmitted more than 20,000 images, and had conducted over 500 lunar soil tests.

The images above were obtained during a low-altitude pass by LRO, which came within 33 km (20.5 miles) of the lunar surface.

Via the LROC site by Arizona State University.

Luna 17 seen from Lunokhod 1

You Too Can Find Missing Russian Spacecraft

This image, taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's high-resolution camera, shows the final resting place of Lunokod 2, as well as the crater that caused its death. Credit: NASA / GSFC / Sergei Gerasimenko / Sasha Basilevsky, via the Planetary Society Blog

On Monday, NASA released the complete set of science data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera’s first six months of observations, consisting of more than 100,000 lunar images. Straight away, Phil Stooke from the University of Western Ontario began scanning the images to help find a “missing” Russian rover on the lunar surface, the Lunokhod 2. It didn’t take him long to discover the tracks left by the lunar sampler 37 years ago after it made a 35-kilometer trek. “The tracks were visible at once,” said Stooke.

UPDATE: It turns out the original image that showed what Dr. Stooke thought was the Lunokhod 2 rover’s location was not quite correct. Emily Lakdawalla posted a story about it on The Planetary Society Blog, and so I checked with Stooke. He replied: “After I posted my “discovery” Sasha Basilevsky, a veteran Russian planetary scientist, sent me and Emily an image – the one she put on her blog – which shows the true situation. My dark spot is a dark marking the rover made as it turned in place before heading out on one last short drive. That took it out beyond the edge of my image. That new image shows the rover as a bright spot. Yes, I concur with their interpretation. My spot was made by the rover but it’s not actually the rover itself.”

So, I have updated the image above to show the actual final resting spot. The black arrow shows the spot that Stooke originally thought was the rover, where the white arrow shows the real rover. The smaller white arrows point out the rover’s tracks. (end of update)

And now that the images are readily available for anyone to see, who knows what you can find on the Moon?
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