Emily LakdawallaMar 15, 2010

Soviet landers Luna 20, 23, and 24, plus the tracks of Lunokhod 2

Today is the bonanza day for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: the first formal release of orbiter data happened this morning, including 10 Terabytes (that is 10 million Megabytes!) of camera data. I am in the middle of writing a lengthy post on that but was foiled in my attempts to finish it by demanding children and coworkers. Hopefully I'll finish tomorrow!

But I absolutely could not let the images below pass without posting them this evening: photos of Soviet hardware on the surface of the Moon, namely the sample return missions Luna 20, Luna 23, and Luna 24, plus a bonus: a preview of a bit of the Lunokhod 2 rover's 37 kilometers of tracks across the Moon. Lunas 20 and 24 were successful sample return missions. Luna 23 failed to return samples, having been damaged upon landing.

It's late and I haven't had dinner yet so I'll post these without much further comment except: Woo hoo! More hardware on the Moon!

Luna 20 lander on the Moon
Luna 20 lander on the Moon The Luna 20 descent stage has been sitting on the lunar highlands since its landing on February 21, 1972. On February 22, 1972, a sample return capsule launched from this spot, carrying 55 grams of lunar soil back to Earth.Image: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University
Zoom onto Luna 20
Zoom onto Luna 20 This Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera image of the Luna 20 lander has been enlarged from its original resolution. To the right of the dark shadow of the lander, the shadow extends into a dark hand -- the raised sampling arm, apparently waving back at the orbiter.Image: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University
Sample return capsule from Luna 20
Sample return capsule from Luna 20
Luna 23 and Luna 24
Luna 23 and Luna 24 A mosaic of two Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera images solves a longstanding puzzle in lunar exploration: just how close together did the Soviet sample return missions Luna 23 and Luna 24 land? Both were sent to Mare Crisium. Luna 23 was damaged during its landing on November 6, 1974 and failed to collect any samples, though it did return data for three days. Luna 24 landed nearby on August 22, 1976, collecting 170 grams of dust and rocks and returning them to Earth. But the landing locations were never very well constrained until now. These photos reveal the two landers to be well separated at about 2,400 meters apart. Furthermore, they show Luna 24 to be located on the edge of a small crater, meaning that its samples came from the crater's ejecta blanket. Original imageImage: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University
LROC view of Luna 24 on the Moon
LROC view of Luna 24 on the Moon Luna 24 landed in Mare Crisium on August 22, 1976, collecting 170 grams of dust and rocks and returning them to Earth. This Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image reveals that the lander sits on the ejecta of a fairly fresh crater.Image: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University
Luna 24 artist concept
Luna 24 artist concept

Unlike the above images of the Luna landers, the view below, including a bit of a well-weathered sinuous rille, wasn't released by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team. This image was found, within that 10 Terabytes of data, by planetary cartographer extraordinaire Phil Stooke. They're a bit hard to see, but if you squint (and more importantly, if you enlarge the image), you can find the tracks of Lunokhod 2; this image even includes the area of the rover's final resting spot, though at the resolution shown here (I think roughly 2 m/pixel) I'm not convinced you can actually identify any specific pixel as being the rover. Still, rover tracks on another world!It thrills me when I see those on Mars, and it thrills me when I see them on the Moon. I am sure some or another amateur will have pasted together a view of these tracks as seen at Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera's full resolution within the next day or two!

Lunokhod 2's tracks
Lunokhod 2's tracks This browse-resolution view of the eastern end of Lunokhod 2's 37-kilometer traverse across the Moon shows that the rover's tracks were still visible more than 27 years after the spacecraft's January 15, 1973 landing. The image is roughly 4 kilometers wide.Image: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University

It helps to locate the tracks if you have a Lunokhod 2 traverse map in front of you; Russia's Laboratory for Comparative Planetology has helpfully posted a section of Phil Stooke's Lunokhod 2 article from the International Atlas of Lunar Exploration that contains such maps. (The relevant map is on the 13th page of that PDF.) As Phil remarked today at unmannedspaceflight.com, it's clear now that his map is going to need some major revision! You may also enjoy attempting to compare the orbital view to some of the pictures from the complete archive of Lunokhod 2 panoramas.

Lunokhod 2
Lunokhod 2
Lunokhod's tracks
Lunokhod's tracks Between Lunokhod's cleated tracks in the lunar soil is the trail of the PROP, a sensor and penetrometer mounted on a ninth wheel.Image: The Planetary Society

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