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Mapping the Moon: A Brief History of Lunar Cartography from Galileo to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Soviet Lunar Probes

From the late 1950s through the 1970s the Soviet Union launched 24 unmanned Luna missions and five Zond probes to the Moon. The spacecraft were the first to image the far side of the Moon, the first to make a soft landing, and the first to send living creatures to lunar orbit and return them safely to Earth. The Soviet Union also successfully returned lunar samples with their robotic probes.

Luna 3 Photographs the Far Side

The Luna program began in January 1959 with the launch of Luna 1 that performed a lunar flyby. Luna 2 crashed into the Moon in September 1959. Luna 3 launched October 4, 1959. Three days later the spacecraft took 29 photographs of the Moon’s far side from a range of about 40,000 miles above the lunar surface. These were the first images of the lunar far side. Though the photographs lacked precise detail, the images revealed a landscape with more mountains and fewer mares, or seas, than the near side.

Image of the lunar far side photographed by Luna 3.

The lunar far side photographed by Luna 3. The spacecraft contained a duel-lens 35mm camera with 200mm and 500mm telephoto lenses. An onboard processing unit developed the film and sent scanned images to Earth. Image source: Akademii͡a nauk SSSR (USSR Academy of Sciences). Trans. George Yankovsky. First Photographs of the Reverse Side of the Moon. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960. View Source

Luna 9 Makes a Soft Landing

Luna 9 launched January 31, 1966, and made a soft landing in Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms) on February 3. It was a spherical spacecraft, about two feet in diameter with a weight of approximately 200 pounds. Luna 9’s science payload included a radiation detector and a television camera, which took a series of four panoramic images of the lunar surface. The mission ended on February 6 when the spacecraft’s batteries were depleted.

The third of four panorama photographs taken by Luna 9. The series of images show rocks and lunar soil near the spacecraft. Image source: Akademii͡a nauk SSSR (USSR Academy of Sciences). Pervye panoramy lunnoĭ poverkhnosti. Po materialam avtomaticheskoĭ stant︠s︡ii ‘Luna-9’ (The First Panoramas of the Lunar Surface. According to the Materials of the Automatic Station ‘Luna-9’). Moskva: Nauka, 1966. View Source

Zond 5 Sends Animals to Lunar Orbit

Zond 5 launched September 14, 1968, for a circumlunar mission three months before NASA planned to send astronauts to lunar orbit aboard Apollo 8. The Soviet probe carried two turtles, flies, worms, plants, seeds, and bacteria. The spacecraft flew around the Moon on September 18 and splashed down in the Indian Ocean three days later. The biological payload survived the trip. The turtles lost body weight but were otherwise healthy.

The Zond 5 capsule in the Indian Ocean after splashdown. The spacecraft’s closest approach to the Moon was approximately 1,200 miles during its circumlunar flight. Image source: Clark, Phillip. The Soviet Manned Space Program: An Illustrated History of the Men, The Missions, and the Spacecraft. Orion, 1988. View Source

Luna 16 Returns Lunar Samples

Luna 16 was the first robotic probe to return lunar samples to Earth. The spacecraft landed in Mare Fecunditatis (the Sea of Fertility) on September 20, 1970. A drill aboard the probe gathered a core tube sample at a depth of about 14 inches. The ascent stage of Luna 16 lifted off the Moon after a 26-hour stay on the surface. It returned 3.6 ounces of lunar soil.

Artist depiction of Luna 16’s ascent stage lifting off from the Moon.

Artist depiction of Luna 16’s ascent stage lifting off from the Moon. The two-stage spacecraft weighed 12,300 pounds at liftoff from Earth. Image source: Ulivi, Paolo, and David Harland. Lunar Exploration: Human Pioneers and Robotic Surveyors. Praxis, 2004. View Source