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14 September 2010

On this day in history: First man-made object to reach the Moon, 1959

After their successes in putting the first man-made object into space the scientists of the Soviet space programme set their sights on a more remote target. Between September 1958 and June 1959 the Soviet Union launched a series of rockets carrying probes that they hoped would reach the Moon. All of the first three attempts failed to leave the Earth's atmosphere and while fourth probe, Luna 1, was successfully launched it missed the Moon by about 6,000km and became the first man-made object to enter orbit around the Sun. During the fifth attempt, the guidance systems of the R-7 rocket failed and the mission was aborted.

Early in the morning on 12th September 1959, a R-7 Semyorka rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying the lunar probe. This probe, called Luna 2, successfully separated from the third stage of the rocket and both headed off towards the Moon. Along the way it confirmed the presence of the solar wind, which was first detected by Luna 1. The next day Luna 2 expelled a bright cloud of sodium gas to aid the scientists in tracking its progress and so that they could observe the behaviour of gases in space.

At a little after 10pm UTC, on 14th September the scientists stopped receiving transmissions from Luna 2 indicating that it had impacted with the Moon. The probe landed somewhere in the Palus Putredinus ('Marsh of Decay'). Before crashing instruments on Luna 2 demonstrated that, unlike the Earth, the Moon had no radiation belts nor a significant magnetic field.

The Luna programme continued until 1976 by which time NASA had successfully made manned missions to the Moon, something the Soviets never achieved. To read more visit the Zarya site, which includes web-pages dedicated to the Luna missions.

Related posts
First woman in space: 16th June 1963
Launch of Apollo 13: 11th April 1970
Only spaceflight of Buran: 15th November, 1988


Stephanie Barr said...

The Luna missions are fascinating, particularly the rovers, which, I believe, have still covered more distances than all of the Mars rovers combined though in a lot less time (months not years).