The Russian Rover That Led The Way

It has been some decades since there has been any political appetite to fund crewed space exploration. All through the 1960s the Space Race was very much on. The USSR and the US were fighting a war on every imaginable front excepting one that involved men and bullets. Very much a part of that was their efforts to be the first for any key milestone pushing back the final frontier. Although it was ultimately the Americans that won, picking up the star prize of the first people to land on the moon in the summer of ’69, the Russians had spent the previous decade winning every accolade in sight.

They were the first to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile; the first to send a satellite into space; they put the first animal, man and woman in space; they conducted the first spacewalk; they were the first to orbit the moon, to land probes on the moon and the fist to return samples from the moon. Just after the achievements of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, the pinnacle of the age, the Russians achieved another first, the first lunar rover. Today, November 10th 2015, marks the 45th anniversary of the landing of their Lunik 17 lander.

The Lunokhod 1 lunar rover. Picture by Petar Milosevic
The Lunokhod 1 lunar rover. Picture by Petar Milosevic

Today, with no Cold War to bolster budgets, we have become very used to the idea of sending robots to do our exploration for us but back then it was a new idea, outside the realms of science fiction at least. Lunik 17 was a nearly 6 ton behemoth but it touched softly down on the lunar surface, unfolded two ramps and allowed its Lunokhod 1 rover to disembark. The numerator 1 is a bit disingenuous here as there was actually a Lunokhod 0; it was launched the previous year but failed to achieve lunar orbit.

Lunokhod 1, then, was the first rover to, erm, rove on the surface of an object other than the earth. It took a team of five drivers back on earth to manoeuvre it and negotiate the five second time delay relaying instructions back and forth to the moon. It was fairly well kitted out, which is the least you’d expect of a three quarter ton vehicle. It had 8 independent wheels, 4 tv cameras, an x-ray telescope, a cosmic ray detector, and what I can only find described as ‘a laser device’.

I'm not sure how they came by it but this drawing of Lunik 17 was created by NASA
I’m not sure how they came by it but this drawing of Lunik 17 was created by NASA

The rover was solar powered and designed to last for 3 lunar days, the equivalent of three months here on earth, but it actualy survived for 11 months thereby beginning a long tradition of rovers seriously outperforming their design spec. It had two forward and two reverse gears and had a top speed of 100 metres per hour. Over its life it covered about 10.5 km, a more than respectable distance even by today’s standards. It sent home over 20,000 images including 206 high resolution panoramas, one of which you can see at the top of this post. Incredibly, the lunik 17 module is still being used for science today, but I’m going to save that story for tomorrow’s post.

So there you have it. The next time you read about the latest pioneering discovery made on Mars by Opportunity or Curiosity take a moment to remember the not so little rover that could from 1970, blazing a trail that no human has followed since.


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