January 02 – Launch of Luna 1 (1959)

Luna 1 was launched by the USSR (Russia) on January 2nd 1959, and was intended to be the first spacecraft to impact the Moon. Unfortunately for the Soviet scientists involved in the program an error back on the ground caused the rocket carrying it to burn for too long, changing the trajectory and sending the payload hurtling past the target at about 6000 km distance. The result was that on January 4th 1959, Luna 1 entered a heliocentric (around the Sun) orbit between Earth and Mars, becoming, I suppose, the first artificial planet. It’s still up there, completing an orbit of the Sun every 450 days, and will probably remain there for a very long time.

Replica of Luna 1 (image: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Replica of Luna 1 (image: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Despite missing the target, Luna 1 did provide some useful information. It was able to measure the solar wind for the first time, and discovered that the Moon has no detectable magnetic field.

Our photograph today is of a replica of Luna 1, so you should probably ignore the huge stalk sticking out of the bottom.


1905 – Discovery of Jupiter’s eighth largest moon, Elara, by Charles Dillon Perrine. For some reason Elara didn’t receive its present name until 1975.