Science

NASA finds lost Soviet lunar rover after 40 years

NASA finds lost Soviet lunar r...
The Lunokhod 1 lunar rover (Photo: Lavochkin Association)
The Lunokhod 1 lunar rover (Photo: Lavochkin Association)
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The Lunokhod 1 lunar rover (Photo: Lavochkin Association)
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The Lunokhod 1 lunar rover (Photo: Lavochkin Association)

On November 17, 1970, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 17 delivered the lunar rover Lunokhod 1 onto the surface of the moon. For 11 months after, controlled in real-time by a human team in Moscow, it explored seven miles of the lunar surface. Sending back reams of data, it was considered to be one of the biggest successes of the little-known Soviet lunar exploration program. And then, it disappeared. It wasn’t abducted or anything, it just ceased transmitting, as space probes have a tendency to do. This spring, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spied it on the moon’s surface. The really neat thing: it can still reflect laser beams back to Earth as if it were brand new.

NASA has previously attempted to locate Lunokhod 1, but it wasn’t until this recent sighting that they were able to pinpoint its coordinates. Once its location was established, pulses of laser light were sent to it from the 3.5 meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. Amazingly, the rover’s retroreflector sent the pulses back to the observatory bright and clear.

Lunokhod 1 was followed by a second rover, Lunokhod 2, in 1973. Its location has long been known, and its retroreflector has routinely been used for Earth-based scientific studies. Interestingly, however, the older rover sends back a much stronger signal. “The best signal we’ve seen from Lunokhod 2 in several years of effort is 750 return photons, but we got about 2,000 photons from Lunokhod 1 on our first try,” said UC San Diego’s Tom Murphy, who is leading the research team. “It’s got a lot to say after almost 40 years of silence.”

It isn’t known why Lunokhod 1’s reflection is so much better, but NASA believes it could yield clues as to why other reflectors placed on the moon have weakened after a decade spent on the lunar surface.

Now that it has been located, Lunokhod 1 will become part of an ongoing laser ranging study. By measuring the time it takes for laser pulses to reach various locations on the moon and reflect back, over time scientists can map its orbit with millimeter precision.

Via NASA Science News.

16 comments
Teejay
I wonder if anybody has explored the dea - \"Did the people living on the dark side of the moon use the rover somewhere else for a few years and have only just put it back where they found it?\"
Eletruk
OK, first off there is no \"dark side of the moon\", the far side gets just as much sun as the side we see. Second, on the article. since the moon has no atmosphere or winds to kick up dust, the retroreflectors wouldn\'t lose reflectivity due to dust build up - except maybe by micrometeroites. More likely the mounting of the mirrors (possibly glued on) could have failed due to the extreme temperature fluctuations, from an average of -184C (-300F) in the shade to an average of 101C (214F) in the sun. That\'s a lot of expansion and contraction, and even screwed in tight, things tend to work loose. So how did the Russians build their retroreflectors? Maybe they thought ahead and rather than build them out of 3 mirrors at right angles, instead they carved them out of a single block and polished them.
pittaxx
That\'s Russian technology for you... Immortal no matter what. I bet if you kick the rover a few times it would start working again.... xD
Facebook User
NASA found it 40 years later, then Gizmag \"discovers\" that almost four months after the rest of the world. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WowQsb1Ry5c
SalemCat
(I should know the answer to this) Some people claim the USA\'s Moon Landing never happened - that it was staged. So I\'d like to know - Is the American Lunar Module on the Moon\'s surface visible from Earth ? How about the Footprints ?
Mark in MI
treggiari: Yes, look at an article right here on Gizmag: http://www.gizmag.com/apollo-11-landing-anniversary-pictures/12283/
Mark in MI
treggiari: correction (reread you post) Visible from the earth, likely not (not that I can find at least), but visible from moon orbit as in the Gizmag article. Seeing the landers from Earth would be like identifying a single grain of sand on a beach from an airliner.
Rory
@treggiari - Really? *Really*? Why is this still even a discussion? I apologize, by the by, if you aren\'t one of the They-Faked-It! crowd. It might be a language-barrier thing, but it seems like you might be among the They-Faked-It! ignorati. If so, here\'s a list of items left on the moon, some of which might be visible; some of which simply won\'t: http://bit.ly/bw2Z1x Why won\'t this subject die? I wish there were more Buzz Aldrin types in the world. Classic test-pilot, decking that know-it-all, smug, in-your-face They-Faked-It! guy (or, in that case, You-Faked-It!). Why don\'t people get more excited about the *fact* that we went? Why the cynicism and attempts at taking away from one of the most amazing achievements of the human race? I don\'t get it. Again, I sincerely apologize if we\'re on the same side here. If not, there\'s no apology - just the desire for more people to get excited about what you can accomplish when you get thousands of people working together toward an ambitious goal. If all the conspiracy \"theorists\" put their time into celebrating what was done back then rather than making ridiculous arguments about sound stages and whatnot, I wonder what *they* could accomplish. Most of them aren\'t stupid - they tend to be meticulous and obsessive. If they had a little more skill in the critical-thinking department, their brains could be put to great use. Sigh.
SalemCat
Thanks to Mark in MI ! I\'ve never been a Moon Landing denier, but it did occur to me if a lost Soviet Moon Rover can be seen from earth, the Lunar Modules, which were never even lost, should be. If instead of providing co-ordinates, NASA have provided some lame excuse, I think we\'d all be deniers.
Mark in MI
No problem. I won\'t share my wife\'s chocolate chip cookies, but (truthful) information is for sharing.