Lunokhod 1, the first robotic rover in history, snapped this picture of its tracks in the lunar soil in late 1970. After its mission ended, astronomers tried to bounce laser beams off a small reflector on the rover, but without success. In 2009, however, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed the rover, allowing scientists to pinpoint its location and begin using the laser reflector. Lunokhod landed on the Moon in November 1970, and operated for 10 months and covered about 10 miles. [NASA]
The Soviet Union’s first “moonwalker” ambled about the lunar surface for more than 10 months, covering about seven miles. And then it got lost. But it was recently re-discovered -- and it’s been put back to work.
Lunokhod 1 -- a name that means “moonwalker” -- landed on the Moon 40 years ago this week. It was the first robotic rover on any world beyond Earth.
Lunokhod studied the lunar surface with TV cameras and other instruments. It also carried astronomical instruments, plus a reflector for bouncing laser beams back to Earth. Scientists use reflectors left by Apollo astronauts and Soviet rovers to measure the precise distance between Earth and Moon. The measurements help probe the Moon’s interior, and test Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity.
But when Lunokhod stopped rolling, the lasers on Earth couldn’t find it. Despite repeated attempts, the rover remained lost.
This spring, though, an American satellite that’s orbiting the Moon snapped a picture of Lunokhod 1. Astronomers then found it with a laser beam. Today, they’re making Lunokhod a regular part of their experiments -- four decades after its retirement.
Lunokhod landed in a volcanic basin known as the Sea of Rains. You can see that area on the Moon tonight. It’s along the line between night and day, near the top of the lunar disk. And the Moon has a brilliant companion: the planet Jupiter, which is to the lower left of the Moon at nightfall.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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