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NASA finds lost Soviet lunar rover after 40 years

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June 10, 2010

The Lunokhod 1 lunar rover (Photo: Lavochkin Association)

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.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
16 Comments

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?"

Teejay
11th June, 2010 @ 03:24 am PDT

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.

Eletruk
11th June, 2010 @ 10:33 am PDT

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

pittaxx
11th June, 2010 @ 05:54 pm PDT

NASA found it 40 years later, then Gizmag "discovers" that almost four months after the rest of the world.



Facebook User
11th June, 2010 @ 08:17 pm PDT

(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 ?

SalemCat
21st June, 2010 @ 12:18 pm PDT

treggiari:

Yes, look at an article right here on Gizmag:

http://www.gizmag.com/apollo-11-landing-anniversary-pictures/12283/

Mark in MI
21st June, 2010 @ 02:20 pm PDT

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.

Mark in MI
21st June, 2010 @ 02:22 pm PDT

@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.

Rory
21st June, 2010 @ 03:22 pm PDT

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.

SalemCat
22nd June, 2010 @ 08:21 am PDT

No problem. I won't share my wife's chocolate chip cookies, but (truthful) information is for sharing.

Mark in MI
22nd June, 2010 @ 01:08 pm PDT

To those who corrected my altar ego Teejay's comment about "the dark side of the moon" - I know there is light there ... I was using the colloquial (spelling?) term for the side we cannot see. Pedants! Did it occur to some of you readers that maybe the USSR secrecy about anything scientific or military information that could be used by others (and the USA for that matter at times) may have caused difficulty in location?

The Skud
22nd June, 2010 @ 08:03 pm PDT

"There is no dark side in the moon, really. As a matter of fact it's all dark."

Christopher Weuve
16th December, 2010 @ 08:32 am PST

@SalemCat: You can't actually see the Soviet Moon rover from earth, but the reflector allows a laser to bounce back some of the light. In fact, the U.S. missions placed reflectors on the moon too and you can bounce a laser from them as well.

The moon rovers are one of the most underrated achievements of the soviet union. To place a radio controlled rover on the moon with 1960's technology is astonishing. The design was so good that a modified version of the rover was used to clean up the debris in the Chernobyl disaster.

Edgar Walkowsky
1st August, 2012 @ 10:36 pm PDT

To Edgar Walkowsky:

the design was actually so good, that some features are used today on Mars))

Naum Shuv
10th September, 2014 @ 08:14 am PDT

If they recovered a piece of the rover, they could do a good study of the Lunar environment namely how equipment erodes over the years on the Moon.

Mike Giles
13th October, 2014 @ 12:25 pm PDT

Finder keeper!

Dan Vasii
18th October, 2014 @ 11:35 pm PDT
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