ISO First Moon Lan­der

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Soundings -

EARTH’S MOON is a ceme­tery of space probes, hurled there by nu­mer­ous na­tions over the last half­cen­tury. Whether they landed suc­cess­fully or crashed in a use­less plume of lu­nar dust, we usu­ally lost sight of them. NASA’S Lu­nar Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter (LRO), which has been scan­ning the moon’s sur­face since 2009, has been key to spot­ting some of these mile­stone space­craft. It has sent back pic­tures of all six Apollo land­ing sites and that of Surveyor 1, NASA’S first moon lan­der, which went up in June 1966 to scope out the ter­rain ahead of the astro­nauts. Now the hunt is on for the coup de grâce of moon mem­o­ra­bilia.

On Fe­bru­ary 3, 1966, the Soviet Union kept its lead in the space race by suc­cess­fully land­ing the first space­craft on another ce­les­tial body. Luna 9, a spher­i­cal space­craft about two feet in di­am­e­ter, was ejected from its de­scent stage and rolled to a stop in Oceanus Pro­cel­larum, bet­ter known as the Ocean of Storms.

Luna 9 took the first up-close im­ages of the moon’s land­scape, which con­veyed a vi­tal piece of in­for­ma­tion: The lu­nar sur­face could sup­port the weight of a lan­der. It wouldn’t gulp the hard­ware into a loose layer of dust, as some sci­en­tists had hy­poth­e­sized. On Fe­bru­ary 6, the probe’s bat­ter­ies died, end­ing the mis­sion.

Now re­searchers are us­ing LRO to find this his­toric space­craft. Jeff Ples­cia, a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity’s Ap­plied Physics Lab­o­ra­tory in Lau­rel, Mary­land, is one of the lead­ing lu­nar de­tec­tives. He’s comb­ing through the LRO im­ages of the Ocean of Storms. “I have a large screen so that I can study the dig­i­tal im­age, stretch it, and look for what might be of in­ter­est,” says Ples­cia. Why i is the search for Luna 9 so chal­leng­ing? The space­crafts is just so tiny: “Its size is close to the res­o­lu­tion of the im im­ages,” Ples­cia says. By co com­par­i­son, Surveyor 1, at 14 feet across and nearly 10 feet tall, prac­ti­cally loom­slo in LRO im­ages. Hun­ter­sHun might have bet­ter suc­cess­suc­ces look­ing for Luna 9’s dis­carded de­scent stage, Ples­cia says, which could have cre­ated a blast pat­tern nearby.

Also hun­gry to spot Luna 9 is Mark Robin­son of Ari­zona State Univer­sity, the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor for LRO’S cam­era. He says that it’s not only Luna 9’s size but its history that makes the lan­der hard to find: It was one of the first space­craft to make it to the moon. “We don’t have a be­fore pic­ture of the land­ing site,” he says. He’s look­ing for shad­ows the lan­der might cast in dawn and dusk im­ages. Also, pic­tures snapped when the sun is at zenith, he says, might re­veal a halo sur­round­ing the lan­der.

Robin­son hopes fu­ture ex­plor­ers will be able to give Luna 9 the Surveyor 3 treat­ment: Apollo 12 astro­nauts landed nearby and brought Surveyor’s cam­era home; it’s now on dis­play in the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.