January 16 – Lunokhod 2 Perambulates

Looking for all the world like a space-age pram, Lunokhod 2, the second and last Soviet Moon rover, began exploring our nearby companion on January 16th 1973. It had been landed on the surface the day before by Luna 21, following a four-day journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Lunokhod’s mission was partly to help determine whether Moon-based astronomy was a realistic proposition, and partly to study and take photographs of the surface.

Lunokhod 2 Panorama (image provided by the Laboratory of Comparative Planetology, Vernadsky Institute)
Lunokhod 2 Panorama (image provided by the Laboratory of Comparative Planetology, Vernadsky Institute)

Lunokhod 2 provided many great shots of the surface, such as the one above showing its own tracks in the lunar dust and the Luna 21 lander in the distance, and traveled further on the Moon than any other vehicle. Which brings us to the part I find hardest to believe. Just look at the thing . . .

Lunokhod Rover
Lunokhod Rover

Okay: say what you see. Pram? Mobile bathtub? Prototype Soviet-era family saloon? Project by a class of 6-year olds to build a robotic apple-picking device? The Lunokhod rovers were indeed marvels of 1970’s engineering, mainly because one look at them leaves you absolutely convinced that they should have been smashed to smithereens on impact, (if, that is, they survived being shaken to a small pile of interesting metal shapes on take-off), and certainly should never have been able to explore an alien world. But then if you’ve ever been in a car from the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain (for example a Moskvitch or a Trabby) you’ll probably already know that anything is possible in a worker’s paradise.

One has to admire the Soviet scientists involved in the project for keeping going long after it became obvious that they had designed something William Heath Robinson would have disregarded as ridiculous. If the thing in the photograph above were presented to a news conference by NASA, several journalists would be hospitalized due to excessive laughter.

The Moskvitch 408: another triumph of 1970s Soviet engineering .
The Moskvitch 408: another triumph of 1970s Soviet engineering .

Lunokhod 2 is still on the Moon, of course, and can to this day be detected by laser ranging experiments. It is now in private hands, having been bought at auction in 1993 by astronaut’s son and computer gaming entrepreneur Richard Garriott. This made him the only individual on Earth to own a spacecraft situated on a celestial body other than this one. I believe he also owns the Luna 21 lander and an actual Sputnik.

1893 – Main belt asteroid 353 Ruperto-Carola discovered by Max Wolf and named after the University of Heidelberg (full name Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, or in Latin Ruperto Carola).

1903 – Asteroid 500 Selinur discovered by Max Wolf. It was named after a Celtic moon goddess, a character in German author Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s 1879 novel Auch Einer.

2017 – Death of Gene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut (and therefore the last human at timd of writing) to walk on the Moon.

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