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.

 

Yuri Gagarin Memorialized in a Funky Music Video

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered the “realm of myth and legend” when he became the first human in space and the first person to orbit the Earth. Now, over 53 years later, Gagarin is memorialized with (among many things) a superhero-esque statue in Moscow, yearly Yuri’s Night celebrations held around the world, a launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome…and this music video for a hip new tune titled “Gagarin.”

Oh kids these days.

Created by the two-person London-based band PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING “Gagarin” is the first single released off their new album “The Race for Space.” The music and video, which uses newly-available footage from the Soviet space program, is a “brassy, funk-heavy superhero theme song for the most famous man in the world at the time” and “reveals a new side to the band – not least their considerable dancing skills.”

PSB creator J. Willgoose, Esq. explains the rationale behind the song:
“We didn’t want to be too literal in our interpretation of the material we were given – material that was full of heroic language and a sense of exuberance, with lines like ‘the hero who blazed the trail to the stars’, and ‘the whole world knew him and loved him’. It seemed more appropriate to try and re-create some of that triumphant air with a similarly upbeat song – and when it came to creating the video, the best way we could think of to communicate that sense of joy was to get our dancing shoes on.”

As a fan of Yuri, spaceflight, and brass-band breakdancers in astronaut suits, I give this video two Vostoks up.

You can pre-order PSB’s newest album here, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook, and YouTube.

Video © PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING. HT to Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing.

Details of Yuri Gagarin’s Tragic Death Revealed

Yuri Gagarin on the way to his historic Vostok launch on April 12, 1961. Image: NASA

On the morning of April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard Vostok 1 to become the first human in space, spending 108 minutes in orbit before landing via parachute in the Saratov region of the USSR. The soft-spoken and well-mannered Gagarin, just 27 years old at the time, became an instant hero, representing the success of the Soviet space program (Alan Shepard’s shorter, suborbital flight happened less than a month later) to the entire world. Gagarin later went on to become a director for the Cosmonaut Training Center and was preparing for a second space flight. Tragically, he was killed when a MiG-15 aircraft he was piloting crashed on March 27, 1968.

Gagarin’s death has long been shrouded by confusion and controversy, with many theories proposed as to the actual cause. Now, 45 years later, details about what really happened to cause the death of the first man in space have come out — from the first man to go out on a spacewalk, no less.

Televised image of Aleksey Leonov during his spacewalk outside Vokshod 2
Televised image of Aleksey Leonov during his spacewalk outside Vokshod 2

According to an article published online today on Russia Today (RT.com) former cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov — who performed the first EVA on March 18, 1965 — has revealed details about the accident that killed both Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin in March 1968.

Officially the cause of the crash was said to be the ill-fated result of an attempt to avoid a foreign object during flight training in their MiG-15UTI, a two-seated, dual-controlled training version of the widely-produced Soviet aircraft. “Foreign objects” could be anything, from balloons to flocks of birds to airborne debris to… well, you see where one could go with that. (And over the years many have.)

The maneuver led to the aircraft going into a tailspin and crashing, killing both men. But experienced pilots like Gagarin and Seryogin shouldn’t have lost control of their plane like that — not according to Leonov, who has been trying to release details of the event for the past 20 years… if only that the pilots’ families might know the truth.

A Sukhoi Su-15 fighter jet (Wikipedia Commons)
A Sukhoi Su-15 fighter jet (Wikipedia Commons)

Now, a declassified report, which Leonov has been permitted to share, shows what actually happened during the training flight: an “unauthorized Su-15 fighter” flew too close to Gagarin’s MiG, disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin.

“In this case, the pilot didn’t follow the book, descending to an altitude of 450 meters,” Leonov says in the RT.com article. “While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour.”

The pilot of the Su-15 — who is still alive — was was not named, a condition of Leonov’s permission to share the information.

According to first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, who was officially grounded by the government after Gagarin’s death to avoid a loss of another prominent cosmonaut, the details come as a bittersweet relief.

“The only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed,” Tereshkova said. “But we can finally rest easy.”

Read the full story here on RT.com.

Tereshkova and Leonov at the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow during a ceremony in 2011 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Yuri Gagarin. (NASA photo.)
Tereshkova and Leonov at the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow during a ceremony in 2011 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Yuri Gagarin. (NASA photo.)

Soviet Lander Spotted by Mars Orbiter

On May 28, 1971, the Soviet Union launched the Mars 3 mission which, like its previously-launched and ill-fated sibling Mars 2, consisted of an orbiter and lander destined for the Red Planet. Just over six months later on December 2, 1971, Mars 3 arrived at Mars — five days after Mars 2 crashed. The Mars 3 descent module separated from the orbiter and several hours later entered the Martian atmosphere, descending to the surface via a series of parachutes and retrorockets. (Sound familiar?) Once safely on the surface, the Mars 3 lander opened its four petal-shaped covers to release the 4.5-kg PROP-M rover contained inside… and after 20 seconds of transmission, fell silent. Due to unknown causes, the Mars 3 lander was never heard from or seen again.

Until now.

These images show what might be hardware from the Soviet Union's 1971 Mars 3 lander ( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)
These images show what might be hardware from the Soviet Union’s 1971 Mars 3 lander (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

The set of images above shows what might be hardware from the 1971 Soviet Mars 3 lander, seen in a pair of images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While following news about Mars and NASA’s Curiosity rover, Russian citizen enthusiasts found four features in a five-year-old image from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that resemble four pieces of hardware from the Mars 3 mission: the parachute, heat shield, terminal retrorocket and lander. A follow-up image by the orbiter from last month shows the same features.

“Together, this set of features and their layout on the ground provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out.”

– Alfred McEwen, HiRISE Principal Investigator

The Mars 3 lander (NSSDC)
The Mars 3 lander (NSSDC)

Vitali Egorov from St. Petersburg, Russia, heads the largest Russian Internet community about Curiosity. His subscribers did the preliminary search for Mars 3 via crowdsourcing. Egorov modeled what Mars 3 hardware pieces should look like in a HiRISE image, and the group carefully searched the many small features in this large image, finding what appear to be viable candidates in the southern part of the scene. Each candidate has a size and shape consistent with the expected hardware, and they are arranged on the surface as expected from the entry, descent and landing sequence.

“I wanted to attract people’s attention to the fact that Mars exploration today is available to practically anyone,” Egorov said. “At the same time we were able to connect with the history of our country, which we were reminded of after many years through the images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.”

The predicted Mars 3 landing site was at latitude 45 degrees south, longitude 202 degrees east, in Ptolemaeus Crater. HiRISE acquired a large image at this location in November 2007, and promising candidates for the hardware from Mars 3 were found on Dec. 31, 2012.

Candidate features of the Mars 3 retrorockets (top) and lander (bottom)
Candidate features of the Mars 3 retrorockets (top) and lander (bottom)

The candidate parachute is the most distinctive feature in the images (seen above at top.) It is an especially bright spot for this region, about 8.2 yards (7.5 meters) in diameter.

The parachute would have a diameter of 12 yards (11 meters) if fully spread out over the surface, so this is consistent.

“Together, this set of features and their layout on the ground provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out,” said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Further analysis of the data and future images to better understand the three-dimensional shapes may help to confirm this interpretation.”

Source: NASA/JPL

 

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