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First to reach the moon

Sept. 10, 2021
by Mark Ollig

The word, “luna,” means “moon” in Latin.

The Soviet Union used the R-7 8K71PS rocket Oct. 4, 1957, to launch its Sputnik 1 space satellite.

The R-7 rocket, essentially an intercontinental ballistic missile, was re-designed by the Soviets as the 8K72 to send the first Luna spacecraft probes to the moon.

The first attempt to reach the moon began Jan. 2, 1959, with Luna 1.

Luna 1 missed the moon’s surface by 3,700 miles and is still in orbit between the Sun and Mars.

Luna 2, aka Second Soviet Cosmic Rocket Lunik 2, launched Sept. 12, 1959, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, USSR.

When the R-7 8K72 rocket attained Earth gravitational escape velocity, Luna 2 separated from its third stage and headed to the moon at about 25,000 mph.

At about 97,000 miles from Earth, Luna 2 released bright orange clouds of sodium gas stored in its three gas-discharge containers. The gas aided in tracking the spacecraft. It was also part of an experiment to study the behavior of gaseous fumes in space.

A Geiger Counter and a Triaxial Fluxgate Magnetometer powered by a 360-volt battery are two scientific instruments carried to the moon with Luna 2.

The Geiger Counter had the primary scientific objective of determining the electron spectrum of the outer radiation belt, while the Triaxial Fluxgate Magnetometer collected positioning, navigation, and geological data.

The Luna 2 spacecraft, using radio telemetry, transmitted data to Earth while en route to the moon.

Sept. 14, 1959, at 21:02:23 UT (1:02:23 a.m. Sept. 15 Moscow Summer Time), the spherical-shaped, multiple antennae, 896-pound Luna 2 spacecraft stopped transmitting its radio signals, indicating it had impacted the moon.

The Luna 2 spacecraft contained no independent propulsion system, and so there was no controlled power descent to land safely on the moon’s surface.

Instead, the spacecraft intentionally crashed on the lunar surface east of Mare Serenitatis in the Palus Putredinus region, at 7,382 mph.

I was surprised to learn Luna 2 crashed 160 miles from where Apollo 15 would land in 1971, on the eastern edge of the Imbrium Basin in the same Palus Putredinis region.

Pentagonal-shaped metal sphere pendants with the hammer and sickle of the USSR on one side and the launch date on the other scattered the lunar surface upon the crash of Luna 2.

Luna 2 made history as the first object built by human beings to reach the moon from Earth, which on this day in 1959 is some 240,000 miles away.

To prove Luna 2 was not a “faked mission,” Professor Bernard Lovell, director of the Jodrell Bank Radio Astronomy Station in England, wrote a Sept 28, 1959 article in LIFE magazine of his tracking Luna 2 to the moon.

Lovell learned of the radio frequencies Luna 2 was using from a message sent by the Moscow Cosmos printed on his Telex (think Fax) machine.

He was then able to verify the reception of the Luna 2 telemetry signals using the giant radio telescope at Jodrell Bank.

In the LIFE magazine article, Lovell wrote he was in telephone communication with his American counterparts and said, “I held the transatlantic telephone to our loudspeaker so that they could hear the bleeps for themselves.”

The radio “bleeps” from Luna 2 were “strong and clear,” then according to Lovell, “the signals abruptly stopped without any fading. Luna 2 had hit the moon.”

Sergei Korolev, a highly respected aeronautical engineer who was an expert on rockets, directed the Soviet Union’s Luna program.

The first US spacecraft to reach the moon, Ranger 7, was launched by NASA July 28, 1964, from Cape Canaveral, FL.

The data Ranger 7 obtained was transmitted to Earth before its mission ended upon its planned impact with the moon’s surface July 31.

The first photograph of the moon’s surface from a US spacecraft occurred about 17 minutes before Ranger 7 crashed on the lunar surface. You can see it here: https://go.nasa.gov/2EABMrq.

Just before colliding with the moon in an area called Mare Cognitum, Ranger 7 took its last two photos of the moon’s surface from a height of 3,510 and 1,702 feet. You can view them at https://go.nasa.gov/2Wtgrdo.

Ranger 7 used its high-gain antenna to send 4,308 photographs of the lunar surface to Earth.

The remnants of the first spacecraft to reach the moon, Luna 2, still resides on its surface.

Luna 24 safely landed on the moon Aug. 18, 1976. After retrieving soil samples with its robotic arm, the spacecraft’s ascent stage lifted off the moon’s surface with 6 ounces of lunar soil it returned to Earth Aug. 22.

Luna 24 would be the last spacecraft used during the Luna program.

Be sure to visit the online Bits and Bytes weblog at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.


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