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The first soft landing on the moon

A replica of the Luna 9 that can be seen in the Air and Space Museum, located north of Paris.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Pline/ Wikimedia Commons

Did you follow the Chinese lunar exploration mission Chang’e 4 as it made its progress to the moon? If you did, you must be knowing that the Chang’e 4 mission made history when it achieved the first soft landing on the far side of the moon on January 3, 2019. Having achieved its primary objective, the mission now continues to study and relay vital information regarding the moon.

Fifty three years earlier (a month short to be precise), the first-ever soft landing anywhere on the surface of the moon was carried out successfully. This was done by the erstwhile Soviet Union during an era when they were deeply involved in a space race with the Americans.

The need for a soft landing

Chief among the objectives of the space race was landing the first human beings on the moon. To this effect, unmanned spacecraft had been sent to the moon, to better understand it before the final plunge. While photos had been clicked, including those of the far side of the moon, and spacecraft had crashed into the moon, a soft landing wasn’t managed until 1966.

A soft landing on the lunar surface was crucial because there were a band of astronomers who held the belief that the moon’s surface need not be firm after all and could instead be covered by a layer of dust. Such a scenario would then mean that astronauts visiting the moon might sink into a dusty quicksand, ending humanity’s attempts to land themselves on the moon.

While you might be able to laugh off such a proposition now, you can understand how important this must have been in the 1960s. For space race or not, putting human lives in danger is least sought-after and it was important to minimise the unknowns as much as was possible.

Ingenious landing method

The Luna 9 mission was launched successfully on January 31, 1966. The spacecraft consisted of a sealed container which held the radio system, programming device, batteries, thermal control system and scientific apparatus.

Once the journey to the moon had been completed, the all-important landing stage arrived. The spacecraft slowed down above the moon’s surface, descending on rocket power. Having achieved the desired orientation during descent, the long rod that was projecting from under the spacecraft touched the lunar terrain. This functioned as a trigger for the Luna 9 landing capsule to be ejected.

Surrounded by an air-bag-like cover, which was provided to cushion the impact on the ground and discarded thereafter, the spacecraft bounced on the lunar surface for a number of times before eventually rolling to a stop. Once it came to a stop, the petal-like covers unfolded from the egg-shaped capsule in order to stabilise the spacecraft before it began its operations.

Luna 9 thus achieved the first soft landing on the surface of the moon on February 3, 1966. In the three days that followed, until its batteries died down, Luna 9 faithfully communicated with its masters to relay information, which included the first images and panoramic views of the lunar terrain clicked from the moon’s surface.

Still remains there

Several soft landings came up in the years that followed, both by the Soviet Union and the U.S. These eventually led to the success of the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first two people on the moon.

As for Luna 9, it remains in the lunar surface, lost for now. For, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been scanning the moon’s surface since 2009, hasn’t yet been able to spot it. But then again, spotting Luna 9 from the images sent by LRO is a huge challenge. For Luna 9’s size implies that it will be like a tiny dot in each picture. The spacecraft that conveyed that the lunar surface could support the weight of a lander thus continues to be elusive in that same surface.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 2:16:31 AM |

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