The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Astronautics >> Unmanned Programs and Missions
Luna Project

a series of probes launched by the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1976 that were designed to study the Moon in anticipation of a planned Soviet manned mission

Although the Soviets never launched a man to the Moon, the Luna probes still accomplished much. They were the first man-made objects to attain escape velocity, to impact on the moon, to photograph the "dark side" of the Moon, to soft-land on the moon, to retrieve lunar samples and return them to Earth, and to deploy a rover on the Moon's surface.

And, although the Luna program had more than its fair share of failed launches and malfunctioning hardware, it also had an amazing record of successes, as briefly chronicled below. The date each probe was launched is in parentheses.

Luna 1 (January 2, 1959) Although it passed within 5,995 km of the Moon on January 4, it failed to impact the Moon due to the failure of the launch vehicle control system. Despite the failure, Luna 1 was still the first man-made object to achieve escape velocity. And, while on its journey to the Moon, the probe collected data on the Earth's radiation belt, and discovered that the Moon had no magnetic field and that a solar wind streamed through interplanetary space.

model of the Luna probe
Luna probe

Luna 2 (September 12, 1959) impacted on the surface on September 13, after confirming that the Moon had no appreciable magnetic field and no evidence of radiation belts.

Luna 3 (October 4, 1959) On October 7, a television system obtained a series of 29 photographs over the span of 40 minutes, covering 70% of the Moon's surface. Seventeen of those photographs were transmitted to Earth on October 18, including the first-ever views of the "dark side."

left: drawing of Luna 3
right: Luna 3 photograph of the dark side of the moon
drawing of Luna 3 Luna 3 photograph of the dark side of the moon

Luna 9 (January 31, 1966) became the first man-made object to soft-land on the Moon on February 3, and soon after became the first to transmit photographic data directly back to Earth. Seven radio sessions totalling 8 hours and 5 minutes were transmitted, as were three series of television pictures.

left: diagram of how the Luna 9 probe landed
right: Luna 9 science station

diagram of how the Luna 9 probe landed Luna 9 science station

Luna 10 (March 31, 1966) achieved lunar orbit on April 4. Its payload included a gamma-ray spectrometer, a meteorite detector, and instruments for solar-plasma studies. The probe ceased transmissions on May 30, after 460 orbits and 219 active data transmissions.

Luna 11 (August 24, 1966) achieved lunar orbit on August 28. The probe studied lunar gamma- and X-ray emissions, lunar gravitational anomalies, and the concentration of meteorite streams near the Moon. Its batteries failed on October 1, after 277 orbits and 137 radio transmissions.

Luna 12 (October 22, 1966) achieved lunar orbit on October 25. An onboard television system obtained and transmitted photographs of the lunar surface on October 27. The probe ceased functioning on January 19, 1967, after 602 orbits and 302 radio transmissions; the number of photographs transmitted is unknown.

Luna 13 (December 21, 1966) soft-landed on December 24. On the 25th, an on-board television system transmitted panoramas of the nearby lunar landscape at different sun angles. The probe was equipped with a mechanical soil-measuring penetrometer, a dynamograph, and a radiation densitometer for obtaining data on the mechanical and physical properties, as well as the cosmic-ray reflectivity, of the lunar surface. Transmissions apparently ceased sometime before the end of December.

Luna 16 (September 12, 1970) soft-landed on September 20. It was equipped with an extendable arm with a drilling rig for the collection of a lunar soil sample. Its upper stage ascended from the surface 26 hours and 25 minutes after landing, and returned to Earth with 100 grams of lunar material on September 24.

Luna 16
Luna 16

Luna 17 (November 10, 1970) soft-landed on November 17. This craft carried the Lunokhod 1, an unmanned rover, that was deployed on November 23. The rover was only supposed to operate over three lunar days, but ended up going for eleven. Operations officially ceased on October 4, 1971, after the Lunokhod had traveled 10,540 meters, transmitted over 20,000 television pictures and more than 200 television panoramas, and conducted more than 500 lunar soil tests.

Luna 17
Luna 17

Luna 20 (February 14, 1972) soft-landed on February 21, and returned to Earth with soil samples on February 25.

Luna 21 (January 8, 1973) soft-landed on January 15, and deployed Lunokhod 2 on January 16. Over a span of about four months, Lunokhod 2 covered 37 kilometers, and sent back 86 panoramic images and over 80,000 television pictures. The program was officially announced as complete on June 4.

Luna 22 (May 29, 1974) achieved lunar orbit on June 2. It studied the Moon's magnetic field, surface gamma-ray emissions, the composition of surface rocks, and more before its manuevering fuel was exhausted on September 2.

Luna 24 (August 9, 1976) soft-landed on August 16, and returned to Earth with 170 grams of lunar samples on August 22, 1976. This was the last spacecraft to visit the Moon.


Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Astronautics >> Unmanned Programs and Missions

This page was last updated on 01/30/2017.