China’s Chang’e-3 Moon Rover Descends to Lower Orbit Sets Up Historic Soft Landing

All systems appear to be “GO” for the world’s first attempt to soft land a space probe on the Moon in nearly four decades.

China’s maiden moon landing probe – Chang’e-3 – is slated to attempt the history making landing this weekend on a lava plain in the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region.

Chinese space engineers at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) paved the way for the historic touchdown by successfully commanding Chang’e-3 to descend from the 100 km-high lunar circular orbit it reached just one week ago on Dec. 6, to “an elliptical orbit with its nearest point about 15 km away from the moon’s surface”, according to a statement from China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND).

UPDATE: CCTV is providing live landing coverage

The first pictures taken from the alien lunar surface in some 37 years are expected to be transmitted within days or hours of touchdown planned as early as Saturday, Dec. 14, at 9:40 p.m. Beijing local time, 8:40 a.m. EST.

CCTV, China’s state run network, carried the launch live. It remains to be seen whether they will have live coverage of the landing since there have been no programming announcements.

SASTIND said the orbit lowering thruster firing was “conducted above the dark side of the moon at 9:20 p.m.” on Dec. 10, Beijing local time.

Confirmation of the Chang’e-3 probes new, lower orbit was received four minutes later.

China's lunar probe Chang'e-3 entered an orbit closer to the moon on Dec. 10, 2013. (Xinhua)
China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3 entered an orbit closer to the moon on Dec. 10, 2013. Credit: Xinhua

If successful, the Chang’e-3 mission will mark the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 24 sample return vehicle landed back in 1976.

China would join an elite club of three, including the United States, who have mastered the critical technology to successfully touch down on Earth’s nearest neighbor.

The Chang’e-3 mission is comprised of China’s ‘Yutu’ lunar lander riding piggyback atop a much larger four legged landing probe.

Artists concept of the Chinese Chang'e 3 lander and rover on the lunar surface.  Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering
Artists concept of the Chinese Chang’e-3 lander and rover on the lunar surface. Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering

The voyage from the Earth to the Moon began 12 days ago with the flawless launch of Chang’e-3 atop China’s Long March 3-B booster at 1:30 a.m. Beijing local time, Dec. 2, 2013 (12:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 1) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in southwest China.

Chang’e-3 will make a powered descent to the Moon’s surface on Dec. 14 by firing the landing thrusters at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing in a preselected area on the Bay of Rainbows.

The powered descent will take about 12 minutes.

The variable thrust engine can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons, according to Xinhua.

The Bay of Rainbows is located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. It was imaged in high resolution by China’s prior lunar mission – the Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter.

The 1200 kg lander is equipped with terrain recognition equipment and software to avoid rock and boulder fields that could spell catastrophe even in the final seconds before touchdown if the vehicle were to land directly on top of them.

Chang’e-3 is powered by a combination of solar arrays and a nuclear device in order to survive the two week long lunar nights.

The six-wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover, with a rocker bogie suspension, will be lowered in stages to the moon’s surface in a complex operation and then drive off a pair of landing ramps to explore the moon’s terrain.

Yutu measures 150 centimeters high and weighs approximately 120 kilograms and sports a robotic arm equipped with science instruments.

The rover and lander are equipped with multiple cameras, spectrometers, an optical telescope, ground penetrating radar and other sensors to investigate the lunar surface and composition.

The radar instrument installed at the bottom of the rover can penetrate 100 meters deep below the surface to study the Moon’s structure and composition in unprecedented detail.

China’s Chang’e-3 probe joins NASA’s newly arrived LADEE lunar probe which entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following a spectacular night time blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rover and more news.

Ken Kremer

Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova; 1st Woman in Space 50 Years Ago! Ready for Mars

50 Years ago today, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova made history and became the first woman ever fly in space, when she launched aboard the Vostok-6 capsule on June 16, 1963.

The then 26 year old Tereshkova blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome – following in the historic footsteps of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly in space for a single orbit in 1961.

Her mission was far longer, lasting nearly 3 days (70 hours 50 minutes) for a total of 48 orbits of Earth at altitudes ranging from 180 to 230 kilometers (110 x 144 mi). She conducted biomedical & science experiments to learn about the effects of space on the human body, took photographs that helped identify aerosols in the atmosphere and manually piloted the ship.

“Hey, sky! Take off your hat, I’m coming!” she said in the seconds prior to liftoff.

Vostok-6 was her only space mission.

First woman in space Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova is seen during a training session aboard a Vostok spacecraft simulator on January 17, 1964. Credit: AFP Photo / RIA Novosti
First woman in space Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova is seen during a training session aboard a Vostok spacecraft simulator on January 17, 1964. Credit: AFP Photo / RIA Novosti

But today at age 76, Tereshkova is ready to forget retirement and sign up for a truly grand space adventure – a trip to Mars.

“I am ready [to go to Mars],” she said in remarks on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her June 16, 1963 blastoff, according to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. Apparently Mars is her favorite planet!

“Of course, it’s a dream to go to Mars and find out whether there was life there or not,” Tereshkova said. “If there was, then why did it die out? What sort of catastrophe happened?”

Valentina Tereshkova today at age 76 - ready for a Mission to Mars. Credit: RIA Novosti
Valentina Tereshkova today at age 76 – ready for a Mission to Mars. Credit: RIA Novosti

Tereshkova’s landmark flight on Vostok-6 was made ever more historic in that it was actually a joint space mission with Vostok-5; which blasted off barely two days earlier on June 14 with fellow Soviet cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky.

Vostok-5 and Vostok-6 flew within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of one other at one point. They spoke to each other by radio as well as with the legendary Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. Her call sign was “Seagull”. Bykovsky’s call sign was “Hawk”.

Sergei Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, called her “my little seagull.”

Korolev wanted to launch a woman to space to score another spectacular first for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War with the United States.

So she had been selected as a member of the cosmonaut corps just a year earlier in March 1962 along with four other female candidates. Teseshkova was the only member of that female group ever to achieve orbit.

Sergei Korolev, founder of the Soviet Space program, and Valentina Tereshkova. Credit: Roscosmos
Sergei Korolev, founder of the Soviet Space program, and Valentina Tereshkova. Credit: Roscosmos

Tereshkova, a textile factory worker, was chosen in part because she was an expert parachute jumper – a key requirement at that time since the Vostok capsule itself could not land safely. So the cosmonauts had to eject in the last moments of the descent from orbit at about 7,000 m (23,000 ft) and descend separately via parachute.

It would take nearly two decades before another woman – also Soviet- would fly to space; Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.

The first American female space flyer – Sally Ride – finally reached orbit a year later in 1983 aboard the Space Shuttle.

To date, woman comprise about 10% of the people who have flown to space-57 out of 534.

Today, June 16, there are two women orbiting Earth out of 9 humans total – NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg aboard the International Space Station and Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping aboard Shenzhou 10.

Vostok-6 was the last of the Vostok spacecraft series.

Bykovsky flew a total of 5 days and 82 orbits. He landed 3 hours after Tereshkova on June 19.

Tereshkova became an instant heroine upon landing, a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and will forever be known as the ‘First Lady of Space.’

ban_tereshkova

On June 14, Russian Television aired a special 50th anniversary program celebrating the flights of Vostok-5 and Vostok-6 – “Valentina Tereshkova – Seagull and the Hawk”

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

Opportunity Mars Rover Blazes Past 40 Year Old Space Driving Record

Now more than 9 years and counting into her planned mere 90 day mission to Mars, NASA’s legendary Opportunity rover has smashed past another space milestone and established a new distance driving record for an American vehicle on another world this week.

On Thursday, May 16, the long-lived Opportunity drove another 263 feet (80 meters) on Mars – bringing her total odometry since landing on 24 January 2004 to 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers) – and broke through the 40 year old driving record set back in December 1972 by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

See below our complete map of the 9 Year Journey of Opportunity on Mars.

Cernan and Schmitt visited Earth’s moon on America’s final lunar landing mission and drove their mission’s Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV-3) 22.210 miles (35.744 kilometers) over the course of three days on the moon’s surface at Taurus-Littrow.

Apollo 17 lunar rover at final resting place. Credit: NASA
Apollo 17 lunar rover at final resting place on the Moon. Lunar module in the background. Credit: NASA

Cernan was ecstatic at the prospect of the Apollo 17 record finally being surpassed.

“The record we established with a roving vehicle was made to be broken, and I’m excited and proud to be able to pass the torch to Opportunity, ” said Cernan to team member Jim Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, in a NASA statement.

And Opportunity still has plenty of juice left!

So, although there are no guarantees, one can reasonably expect the phenomenal Opportunity robot to easily eclipse the ‘Solar System World Record’ for driving distance on another world that is currently held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover. See detailed graphic below.

In 1973, Lunokhod 2 traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Why could Opportunity continue farther into record setting territory ?

Because Opportunity’s handlers back on Earth have dispatched the Martian robot on an epic trek to continue blazing a path forward around the eroded rim of the huge crater named ‘Endeavour’ – where she has been conducting ground breaking science since arriving at the “Cape York” rim segment in mid 2011.

Out-of-this-World Records. This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth's moon and Mars. Of the vehicles shown, the NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still active and the totals for those two are distances driven as of May 15, 2013. Opportunity set the new NASA driving record on May 15, 2013 by traveling 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers).  The international record for driving distance on another world is still held by the Soviet Union's remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth's moon in 1973. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech
Out-of-this-World Records. This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth’s moon and Mars. Of the vehicles shown, the NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still active and the totals for those two are distances driven as of May 15, 2013. Opportunity set the new NASA driving record on May 15, 2013 by traveling 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers). The international record for driving distance on another world is still held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth’s moon in 1973. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity has just now set sail for her next crater rim destination named “Solander Point”, an area about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) away – due south from “Cape York.”

Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 km) wide, featuring terrain with older rocks than previously inspected and unlike anything studied before. It’s a place no one ever dared dream of reaching prior to Opportunity’s launch in the summer of 2003 and landing on the Meridiani Planum region in 2004.

Opportunity will blast through the world record milestone held by the Lunokhod 2 rover somewhere along the path to “Solander Point.”

Thereafter Opportunity will rack up ever more miles as the rover continues driving further south to a spot called “Cape Tribulation”, that is believed to hold caches of clay minerals that formed eons ego when liquid water flowed across this region of the Red Planet.

It’s a miracle that Opportunity has lasted so far beyond her design lifetime – 37 times longer than the 3 month “warranty.”

“Regarding achieving nine years, I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told me recently on the occasion of the rovers 9th anniversary on Mars in January 2013.

“Our next destination will be Solander Point,” said Squyres.

Opportunity was joined on Mars by her younger sister Curiosity, currently exploring the crater floor inside Gale Crater since landing on Aug. 6, 2012.

Curiosity is likewise embarked on a epic trek – towards 3 mile high (5.5 km) Mount Sharp some 6 miles away.

Both rovers Opportunity & Curiosity have discovered phyllosilicates, hydrated calcium sulfate mineral veins and vast evidence for flowing liquid water on Mars. All this data enhances the prospects that Mars could have once supported microbial life forms.

The Quest for Life beyond Earth continues ably with NASA’s Martian sister rovers.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA missions, Opportunity, Curiosity and more at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentation:

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “Antares Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3309 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south from  Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward - achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) - and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3309 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south from Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward – achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) – and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
View Back at Record-Setting Drive by Opportunity. On the 3,309th Martian day, or sol, of its mission on Mars (May 15, 2013) NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. That drive put the total distance driven by Opportunity since the rover's January 2004 landing on Mars at 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers. This exceeded the distance record by any NASA vehicle, previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View Back at Record-Setting Drive by Opportunity. On the 3,309th Martian day, or sol, of its mission on Mars (May 15, 2013) NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. That drive put the total distance driven by Opportunity since the rover’s January 2004 landing on Mars at 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers. This exceeded the distance record by any NASA vehicle, previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Soviet Lunokhod-2 lunar rover.  Credit: Ria Novosti
Soviet Lunokhod-2 lunar rover. Credit: Ria Novosti

Countdown to Yuri’s Night and the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight !

Celebrate Yuri’s Night on April 12, 2011 -- 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight
On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (left, on the way to the launch pad) became the first human in space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.
Newspapers like The Huntsville Times (right) trumpeted Gagarin's accomplishment.
Credit: NASA
Send Ken your Yuri’s Night event reports and photos

Mark your calendars. April 12, 2011 marks the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s astonishing First Orbit of our precious planet Earth on April 12, 1961. Gagarin was the first human to enter outer space and see what no one else had ever witnessed – our commonly shared Earth as a planet and beautiful blue globe with no borders.

Space enthusiasts worldwide are celebrating this watershed moment in Human history at a network of over 400 “Yuri’s Night” parties taking place in more than 70 countries on 6 continents and 2 worlds, according to the official “Yuri’s Night” website.

Gagarin’s flight took place in the midst of the inflammatory Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States and shocked the world into new realities. The Space Race led to the first lunar landing by the United States and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moons surface in 1969. Eventually, the world’s superpowers beat swords into plowshares and united their efforts to build the International Space Station.

Yuri Gagarin - first human in space. Credit: Russian Archives
Yuri Gagarin was the first person to boldly leave the bonds of Earth’s gravity and thus became the first “Spaceman”. Gagarin blasted off inside the bell-shaped Vostok 1 spaceship from the launch pad at Baikonur at 9:07 a.m, Moscow time (607 UTC) to begin the era of human spaceflight.

Gagarin flew around the Earth in a single orbit at an altitude of 302 kilometers (187 miles). The flight lasted 108 minutes and safely ended when he descended back and parachuted to the ground, just north of the Caspian Sea. At the age of 27, Gagarin was instantly transformed into a worldwide hero. After the momentous flight he soon embarked on an international tour.

20 years later on April 12, 1981, NASA’s first space shuttle blasted off on the STS-1 mission on a daring test flight with astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen strapped inside Space Shuttle Columbia.

Russian postcard featuring Yuri Gagarin

The first “Yuri’s Night – World Space Party” was held on April 12, 2001 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Gagarin’s spaceflight. Over 10,000 people attended 64 events located worldwide. The goal was to inspire people, increase awareness and support for space exploration across the globe and foster the spread of new ideas to broaden our access to space.

“Yuri’s Night” has been growing in popularity every year. Events range in size from a few folks to numbers in the thousands. Attendees range from astronauts and cosmonauts, NASA and global space agency officials and reps, scientists and engineers, famous actors, playwrights, writers, artists, athletes and musicians to just everyday folks and kids of all ages and backgrounds. Everyone can get involved.

Yuri Gagarin in orbit
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, documentary film maker Christopher Riley conceived and created a film titled “First Orbit” to try and show the approximate view of Earth that Gagarin actually saw. There is only scant footage of Gagarin’s actual flight and he himself took no pictures of the Earth from orbit.

“First Orbit” recreates much of the view of the Earth’s surface that Gagarin would have seen fifty years ago. Mostly he flew over the world oceans as well as the Soviet Union and Africa.

Riley collaborated with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, chiefly Paolo Nespoli of ESA, who took film footage from the new 7 windowed Cupola as the station matched the actual flight path of Gagarin and Vostok 1 as closely as possible. The free film celebrates 50 years of human spaceflight.

“First Orbit” premiers worldwide on YouTube in a special global streaming event for Yuri’s Night on April 12 . Watch the short trailer below, with original and stirring music by Philip Sheppard.

Orbital flight path of Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961
Gagarin’s call sign was Cedar or Kder - which means Siberian Pine in Russian. Map courtesy of Sven Grahn

It’s easy and free to register your local party at the Yuri’s Night event website. There is still time to register your Yuri’s Night party – Indeed the list has grown as I typed out this story !

Some events are already set to kick off this weekend. I’ll be presenting at an interactive and free Yuri’s Night evening event in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, about Gagarin’s flight and my experiences with the space shuttle and what‘s beyond.

Send Ken your “Yuri’s Night” event photos/short report to post in a round up story at Universe Today about the global festivities celebrating the historic achievement of Yuri Gagarin. Email kremerken at yahoo dot com

First Orbit Trailer II

Russian built Mini Research Module MRM-1 launched aboard US Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2010.
Shuttle Atlantis delivered MRM-1 (known as Rassvet) to the International Space Station.
MRM-1 undergoes final prelaunch processing inside clean room at Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Florida. Docking port to ISS is protected by red colored covering. Equipment airlock for experiments at top. Russian Flag mounted at left.
Rassvet underscores the cooperation that exists today, in stark contrast to their rivalry during the Cold War. Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada have now united their space exploration efforts to build the International Space Station. The worlds space powers cooperate in other space exploration projects today as well that venture to the Moon, Mars and beyond to Deep Space. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read Ken’s other stories about Yuri Gagarin and Yuri’s Night:
Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 Photo Album – 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight
Stirring Video Tributes to Yuri Gagarin

Yuri’s Night Website
Yuri’s Night Party list
Yuri’s Night Party with Ken in Princeton Junction, NJ, USA
First Orbit Website
STS-1 NASA Mission Website
Ken Kremer

Did You Know: Russian Lunokhod Rovers Created Memorials on the Moon Honoring Women

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The saga of the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod moon rovers keeps getting more interesting! If you missed the update on our article about finding the “missing” Russian landers and rovers among the newly released Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images, the Lunokhod 2 rover was not exactly where one researcher initially thought – so there’s now an updated image, which you can see at this link. But among all the research and poring over images that has been done since NASA released six month’s worth of LRO data to the public earlier this week, Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society uncovered an interesting tidbit about the Lunokhods which she generously passed on to me. After a little research, I found out more about an “extracurricular activity” the two Lunokhod rovers were commanded to do along their traverses on the lunar surface. They each created “memorials” to women on the Moon.

Since the early 1900’s, International Women’s Day has been observed each year by several countries around the world on March 8. The day marks the economic, political and social achievements of women. Russia has been celebrating this holiday since 1913, and in the 1970’s the crews who “drove” the Lunokhod rovers decided to honor women by commanding the rovers to create figure 8’s in the lunar regolith — 8 as in March 8.

Lunokhod 1. Credit: Goddard Spaceflight Center

Lunokhod 1 landed on the Moon November 17, 1970 and roved the surface for nearly a year (322 days.) Lunokhod 2 landed on January 15, 1973 and operated four months.

Apparently both rovers made a figure 8 in the regolith, although the documentation is a little fuzzy. A Russian scientist recalls that Lunokhod 1 made the figure 8, and one of the newly released LRO images shows a faint figure 8 in the regolith (see image left), which could only have been made by Lunokhod 1, but there is better documentation for Lunokhod 2’s memorial.

“To the extent I know, that was Lunokhod 1 which the crew made an 8 by Lunokhod tracks to congratulate our women on March 8 1973,” said Alexander “Sasha” Basilevsky, a veteran Russian planetary scientist, who responded to my queries about the significance of the figures 8’s. “Even in that Soviet time March 8 practically lost its political significance and we men just congratulated our women with little gifts. We continue to do this even now when our political system is far from communistic. For us it is just Women’s Day.”

Also, after scanning through all of Lunokhod 1’s panoramic images, I found this possible image of the figure 8, but I have not yet confirmed this is it:

Possible figure 8 in a Lunokhod 1 panoramic image. Credit: Laboratory of Comparative Planetology. Click image to see all the panoramas from Lunokhod 1.

See all the panoramas from Lunokhod 1.

Dr. Phil Stooke from the University of Western Ontario compiled “The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration.” “In my atlas I show a feature like this at Lunokhod 2’s site,” he said in response to my questions. “I didn’t know about this one at Lunokhod 1, but apparently it’s there as well.”

Here’s what Stooke wrote about the Lunokhod 2’s figure 8:

“On 18 January Lunokhod 2 was driven to a point on the north rim of the 25 m crater where it photographed the landing stage and the hill Le Monnier Alpha in the distance to the southwest. Here it was turned in place to create a circular mark with its wheels, and then moved a few meters where it made a second circle. The resulting figure 8 marking was later described as a memorial to commemorate International Women’s Day, 8 March, which was a holiday in the Soviet Union and is in Russia today.”

Addendum: Stooke told me that after seeing the new images from LRO, he will likely have to re-do the map of Lunokhod’ 2’s travels (top image). “Lunokhod images were often printed mirror-imaged left to right, and it’s often hard to know which is which,” he said. “In this case that map was constructed using at least one image the wrong way round, so it has to be corrected.”

So, it is unclear whether the decision to create these two memorials was in any way political, or simply a kind gesture by the Soviet space agency, or a unique choice made by the rover drivers, or – as was suggested to me by a couple of people – a visual play on an anatomical feature unique to women.

But more importantly, the accomplishments of the Lunokhod rovers are amazing considering the era in which they operated. While the Soviet Union’s exploration of the Moon was not well publicized outside of Russia — and now is often downplayed when compared to the Apollo missions – the ground-breaking technological achievements should be lauded for the innovative sample return missions and rovers that to this day hold the distance record that any vehicle has traveled on another celestial body. Together, they roved further than even the long-lasting Mars Exploration Rovers.

Lunokhod 1 Rover in its final parking spot, as seen by LRO. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University. Click for larger version

Lunokhod 1 traveled 10.5 km (6.5 miles) and returned more than 20,000 TV images and 206 high-resolution panoramas. In addition, it performed twenty-five soil analyses with its x-ray fluorescence spectrometer and used its penetrometer at 500 different locations.

Lunokhod 2 covered a whopping 37 km (23 miles) of terrain, including hilly upland areas and rilles. It sent back 86 panoramic images and over 80,000 TV pictures. Many mechanical tests of the surface, laser ranging measurements, and other experiments were completed during this time.

Many thanks to Emily Lakdawalla, Phil Stooke and Alexander Basilevsky for helping me learn more about this interesting piece of space exploration history!

In case you are wondering, International Womans Day is an official holiday in Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Georgia, Guinea Bissau, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Moldova, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.

See more about LRO images of Soviet lunar rovers.

More info on Lunokhod 1 and Lunokhod 2.