Soviet Union Lunar Rovers

Soviet robotic lander Luna 17 still sitting on Mare Imbrium where it delivered the Lunokhod 1 Rover in November 1970, LROC NAC Image M114185541RE [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].

An amazing spacecraft gently settled to the lunar surface on 17 November 1970. It carried the first successful robotic lunar rover -- Lunokhod 1. For the next ten months the rover was driven by operators in the Soviet Union, with the total distance traveled exceeding 10 km. For comparison, in six years of operation the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has traveled about 12 km.

Lunokhod rovers were about 2.3 meters long and 1.5 meters tall.

After landing, the rover drove down a ramp onto the lunar surface and tested its eight wheels. The rover was driven by solar power during the day; at night it parked and relied on thermal energy from a polonium-210 radioisotope heater to survive the cold (-150°C).

Lunokhod 1 Rover in its final parking spot, LROC NAC Image M114185541RE [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].

The intrepid rover sent back valuable data concerning the composition of the regolith (soil), close up views of the local topography, and important engineering measurements of the regolith. Examine the full

NAC image and trace out the path of Lunokhod 1.

Enlargement of Luna 17 lander, note the Lunokhod 1 tracks starting at the ramp and circling the lander [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Two years later (January 1973) Luna 21 landed in Le Monnier crater, delivering an upgraded Lunokhod 2. It sported higher resolution cameras and an improved scientific payload. Like its predecessor, it was driven by engineers on Earth during the day, and parked at night. Lunokhod 2 explored the Moon for about four months. Unfortunately, the mission was brought to an early end due to overheating, perhaps when soil got on the rover and covered key components.

Lunokhod 2 rover, note its tracks tracing its route southward. The enlargement is specially stretched to show the form of the rover, the brighest area may be the open clamshell lid; ~400 meters wide, NAC Image M109039075LE [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]
The two Lunokhods showed the value of robotic explorers on the surface of another world. It would be another 24 years before the next robotic rover, Sojourner, drove on another world - this time Mars. The next lunar rover, 40 years later, is scheduled for 2013, a joint venture between India and Russia.

Recently the LROC Science Operations Center received an unexpected visitor - Ruslan Kuzmin. He was one of the scientists who had actually participated in the Lunokhod missions! We were able to show him LROC pictures of the hardware on the surface and he was gracious enough to write down some of his thoughts upon seeing his "old friends". 

"Thank you very much for showing me the excellent LROC images of the Lander platform from “Luna-21”, as well as the robotic lunar rover “Lunokhod-2” in its last and eternal parking place after a 37-km, 4 month journey of research.

To see the images with Lunokhod-2 and its tracks on the lunar surface is a very special feeling for me. In the time of the Lunokhod-2 operation, I was a young planetologist who was participating in the mission, and I analyzed the images received by the rover’s TV- camers. In actual fact, this was the first successful mission in which I was involved. It was 37 years ago (in the last century!) when the Lunokhod-2 traveled for four months within the crater Le-Monier at the eastern edge of the Mare Serenitatis.

While looking at LROC images of the Lunokhod-2 rover, I felt a deep interior excitement due to the welled up memories of the earliest “pages” of my science career. It is very exciting that the Lunokhod-2, as well as many other American and Soviet Union Landers, which operated many tens of years ago, now might be imaged by LROC so clearly, and viewed by millions of people around the world. The LRO camera is without any doubt a really fantastic instrument that simultaneously brings our eyes close to the lunar surface, while reminding us of pioneering results from historical missions. P.S. In attachment I sent the fragment of the Lunokhod-2 panoramic image of the Fossa Recta - the last object of its research."

Fragment of last Lunokhod 2 panorama, image courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

Find the Lunokhod 2 and its tracks in the full resolution map projected NAC image below.

Published by Mark Robinson on 17 March 2010