Luna 20, a Soviet mission than landed on the Moon 50 years, sits quietly on the lunar surface today, as shown in this photograph from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (arrow). It was a repeat of the mission plan for Luna 18, which had crashed on the Moon a few months earlier. Luna 20 scooped up about 55 grams of lunar dirt and pebbles and returned them to Earth for analysis. Russia plans to resurrect its Luna program this year, with Luna 25. [NASA]
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Moon and Libra
A half a century ago, the Soviet Union got a “do-over” in its lunar exploration program. A spacecraft designed to gather samples from the rugged lunar highlands had crashed. But 50 years ago today, its replacement touched down on target.
The do-over mission was Luna 20. It launched on February 13th, 1972. It spent a couple of days in lunar orbit, then landed on February 21st.
Its target was the Apollonius highlands, a mountainous region near the edge of the Sea of Fertility. Luna 18 had been sent to the same site just a few months earlier, but it slammed into the surface and was destroyed.
Luna 20, on the other hand, got it just right. After landing, a robotic arm drilled into the surface. It scooped up 55 grams of dirt — about two ounces — and placed the sample in a small capsule. After just one day on the Moon, the capsule headed back to Earth. It parachuted to a safe landing in Kazakhstan, allowing scientists to study its precious cargo.
The Luna program ended in 1976, with Luna 24. But it’s about to resume. Russia plans to launch Luna 25 later this year — picking up where it left off almost half a century earlier.
Look for the Moon climbing into good view after midnight. Zubenelgenubi, one of the brighter stars of Libra, rises close below it. The Sea of Fertility is hidden on the night portion of the lunar disk — the site of a “do-over” in space.
Script by Damond Benningfield