Long-lost Soviet robotic rover Lunokhod 1 found

Sunday, August 29, 2010, 14:05 by Tech Correspondent

Lunokhod 1, a Soviet robotic rover that landed on the moon in 1970 and went missing for 40 years, has been found. It all came about a few months ago when UC San Diego astrophysicist Tom Murphy decided to trace the rover. Initially, his efforts did not bear any results. As he found later, he was working with coordinates 4.5 km off target.

Murphy got a break when, in March 2010, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was photographing other Soviet space waste on the moon’s surface, beamed back images of the Luna 17 and 21, that showed the rover’s tracks.

lunokhod 1 photo

Photo: Lunokhod 1 Soviet robotic moon rover

At Murphy’s instructions, laser pulses were fired at the edge of the lunar surface from a 3.5-mm telescope at the Apache Point Observatory. Murphy noticed that a large nunber of photons were reflected back from the moon. After he analyzed the data, Murphy came to the conclusion that he had finally located Lunokhod 1. Murphy plans to use Lunokhod 1 to measure lunar motion and test theories of gravity.

Many scientists believe that our understanding of gravity is still incomplete. Earlier, the shape of the moon’s path around the Earth was measured with centimeter precision with the help of laser-ranging efforts. Murphy is now testing those predictions with one millimeter, to find out if the current theories turn out to be right or wrong in those circumstances.

Murphy has been quoted as saying, “Testing gravity is hard and the solar system offers our most pristine laboratory for carrying out tests of gravity to exquisite precision.”

The lost-and-found Lunokhod 1 is expected to help scientists gain a better understanding of gravity, planetary motions, and space-related theories.

Lunokhod 1 was sent to the moon aboard a probe named Luna 17, by Soviet scientists, in November 1970. It was powered by solar cells and equipped with radio antennas, cameras, and a dust-sampling scooper. “It looked like a metallic washtub with a dome top and wire-mesh wheels,” said Cathleen Lewis, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Lunokhold 1 successfully toured the moon for 11 months, sampling lunar soil and beaming thousands of images back to Earth, but eventually ran out of power. This was because the rover would shut down at each lunar nightfall, that is around every 29 Earth days, and then be up and running at each sunrise.

Murphy explained that this type of thermal cycling was really tough on electrical and mechanical parts and finally led to a complete breakdown of Lunokhod 1.

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