Forty years ago today, a capsule that looked like a bowling ball with a couple of hot dogs sticking out the top parachuted into a snow bank deep inside the Soviet Union. The odd contraption carried a precious cargo: about an ounce of dirt from the surface of the Moon.
Luna 20 had launched a week earlier. It landed in the Moon's rugged Apollonius Mountains, at the edge of the Sea of Fertility. A robotic arm scooped up a small bit of lunar soil and dumped it in the capsule, which soon blasted off for the return to Earth.
Luna 20 was the second of three Soviet probes to return lunar soil to Earth. It duplicated the flight plan of a failed mission, which had crashed about a mile away from Luna 20's landing site a few months earlier.
One of the goals of the Luna series was to blaze the trail for cosmonauts to land on the Moon. But the Soviets could never get their big lunar booster rocket to work. So after the early success of the American Apollo missions, the Soviets dropped their plans for a manned landing. They continued their robotic exploration, though, with a series of successful landers, rovers, and sample-return missions. The exploration continued until 1976.
Look for their target — the Moon — high in the west at nightfall. The brilliant planet Venus — the "evening star" — is close to its lower left, with the slightly fainter planet Jupiter above them.
We'll have more about the Moon and Jupiter tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
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