Luna 1

StarDate: January 4, 2009

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The Moon is a big target -- more than 2,000 miles in diameter. Even so, in the early days of spaceflight, it wasn't an easy target to hit. In 1958, America and the Soviet Union fired more than a half-dozen spacecraft toward the Moon, but none even came close. It was like a row of archers all firing their arrows into the trees, the ground, or their own feet -- anywhere but the target.

The first "arrow" to get close was the Soviet Union's Luna 1, which flew past the Moon 50 years ago today.

At the time, the Soviets claimed it was a big success. In fact, though, Luna 1 was supposed to hit the Moon. But navigating the path to the Moon was tricky. The Soviets used the craft's radio signal to track its course. Luna also dumped a cloud of yellow sodium along the way to confirm its position. But Luna still missed the Moon by about 4,000 miles.

It did make some important discoveries, though. It made the first measurements of the outer regions of Earth's radiation belts, and it found that the Moon doesn't generate a magnetic field.

A few months later, a follow-up to Luna 1 did hit the Moon. And a few months after that, another craft gave humanity its first view of the far side of the Moon.

The United States is getting ready to launch its next Moon mission. India, Japan, China, and Europe have active lunar programs, too. And while the missions may or may not succeed, getting to the Moon isn't likely to be a problem.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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