Dispatch: Moonwalker

November 11, 2008

The Soviet Union was the first space program (like one or two other very important milestones in aerospace history) to put a remote-controlled robotic vehicle on another world.


In Soviet Russia, moon walks on you!

It’s name was Lunokhod 1 (literally, moon walker) and if you didn’t know better, you might think it was some sort of fictional steampunk kitbash.

Just look at this monster.  It was 2.3 meters long (seven and a half-ish feet!), and I haven’t been able to find its weight anywhere, but it must have been pretty hefty.

Overall, the rover itself was pretty straightforward.  The tub-like body was a sealed chamber filled with nitrogen and temperature regulated by Polonium-210, and was covered by a hinged lid.  The chassis had eight independently-powered wheels (plus another roller at its rear which acted as an odometer).

It had a slew of simple testing devices, including cameras, geology tools, a spectrometer, a small x-ray telescope, and a laser.  Two antennas relayed its data back to Earth, one a vertical conical visible in the above photo, the other a super-directional helical antenna (the upper boom sticking out at an angle).  The flipped-open device at the front is a laser retroreflector.

The whole shebang was powered by batteries which were recharged throughout the lunar day by a bank of solar cells underneath the main body’s lid, which would flip open to soak up some E.

To me, this guy looks pretty much exactly what I imagine a big, rugged, late ’60s Russian lunar robot should look like.

And they built it to last; they expected to get three lunar days of operation out of it (three-ish Earth months… do I really need to do that math for you?) but ended up getting almost eleven lunar days of life, constituting 20000ish video images, over 200 hi-rez pans, 25 spectrographic soil tests, around 500 soil punctures, and about 10 kilometers of travel.

Lunokhod had a sister, Lunokhod 2, which in it’s 4 lunar days of life traveled a nearly unbelievable 37 kilometers.  A third rover was built, but not launched.

I guess you could say that these guys were the great-grandparents of Sojurner, Spirit and Opportunity.  And despite their data being nearly 40 years old, you can bet that the info and pics they radioed back home will still be handy in the future explorations of our planet’s closest astronomical neighbor.

The spacecraft which carried Lunokhod 1 on its voyage was named Luna 17, and was launched on November 10, 1970.  It touched down on the moon’s surface and dropped off its passenger a week later, November 17.


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