USSR unsung hero Lunokhod 1 drove to the moon before America got there

At first, the Russians had the upper hand in the conquest of space. They were the first to launch a satellite into Earth orbit in 1957, and the first to send a man into space in 1961. But that was only the beginning. In great secrecy, they developed a lunar vehicle named Lunokhod (also spelled Lunakhod) for the sole purpose of going there and driving on the Moon.

Unlike the Sputnik 1, which was only a beeper, the Lunokhod 1 had to accomplish search missions. He was sent to find what is on Earth’s natural satellite. Its sensors and x-ray devices could scan the ground and send crucial data to the command center on the Crimean peninsula.

The Lunokhod (Moonwalker) program was developed by the Lavochkin Institute, the same Russian company that built the first supersonic missile. He was also responsible for the development of various aircraft during World War II.

With all the equipment and engines, batteries and communication devices, the Lunokhod 1 weighed 756 kg (1,667 lb). It was much heavier than the LRV1 sent by NASA in 1972, which weighed only 210 kg (460 lb). It was 1.35 m (4 feet) high and 2.15 m (7 feet) long.

Around a tank-shaped shell, Lavochkin engineers filled the vehicle with sensors and other devices. Lunokhod was equipped with items such as antennas, four television cameras and special expandable devices for testing lunar soil, according to a NASA summary on Russian things on the moon. It also included a spectrometer, penetrometer, laser reflector, radiation detectors, x-ray telescope and speedometer.

The vehicle was controlled by a team of five “drivers” on Earth. They controlled the eight-wheeled vehicle, which could reach a top speed of 300 feet (100 meters) per hour. All drivers had to anticipate movements as there was a five second delay between command input and vehicle response.

It was powered by a foldable solar panel mounted on top of the vehicle, which could close and act as a cover. Engineers did this to protect the internal part of the vehicle during moonlit nights. However, since overnight temperatures fell below -275 F (-129 Celsius), scientists feared the on-board equipment could stop working. To avoid this, they mounted a generator powered by polonium which created a heat shield inside the rover.

During the day, temperatures rose to 320 degrees Fahrenheit (160 Celsius). A solar powered ventilation system extracts all this heat from inside the vehicle body and sends it outside via a heat exchange unit. Thus, the equipment inside the vehicle was saved.

To send the vehicle to the moon, the Russians used a Proton rocket that they launched on November 10, 1970, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. After escaping from Earth’s gravity, the rocket dropped the Luna 17 spacecraft, which was carrying the Lunokhod 1. Four and a half days later, the spacecraft landed smoothly on the Moon in an area known as the name of the Sea of ​​Rain (Mare Imbrium), and, on November 17, she deployed the ramps to free the vehicle.

The Russians believed the mission would last around 90 days, but the vehicle exceeded everyone’s expectations and ran for 322 days. It ceased to function when the reserve of polonium was exhausted and the last communication between the command center and the vehicle stopped on September 14, 1971. On October 4, the vehicle was officially considered “dead”. In total, the vehicle traveled 10.54 km (6.55 miles) on the surface of the Moon.

But the Russian vehicle was used even after his “death”. As it stopped working during Moon Day, its lid was left open. In 2010, a team of researchers discovered the lost rover on the surface of the Moon. For this reason, Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-Ranging Operations (APOLLO) researchers could use the Lunokhod 1 reflector to reflect more light than any other surface on the Moon. As University of California San Diego researcher Tom Murphy said, “We received around 2,000 photons from Lunokhod 1 during our first test. After nearly 40 years of silence, this rover still has a lot to say.”

But even if someone were to replenish the vehicle’s polonium supply, there is little chance that the equipment inside will still be able to function. In addition, Earth controllers are already safely placed in museums. Yet the Russians lost their race to the moon with a crewed spacecraft. So in the end the United States won the space race even though they looked the other way at the start.

Do you think the next crew on the Moon should try to start the Russian vehicle?

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