UPDATE (2:50pm ET): Special thanks to Emily Lakdawalla (ace space blogger at The Planetary Society) for sending me an updated LRO image of the final resting place of Lunokhod 2. Apparently Phil Stooke had correctly discovered the rover’s tracks, but mistook a dark patch (near the troublesome crater — black arrow) as the dead rover. Details from The Planetary Society Blog:
The above image has been updated with the correct resting place of Lunokhod 2.
ORIGINAL POST: If you thought the marathon being run by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity was impressive (the wheeled explorer has covered over 19 kilometers, or 12 miles, and still roving strong), spare a thought for the Russian Lunokhod 2 rover that explored the moon in 1973. It covered 37 kilometers (23 miles), holding the record for furthest distance traveled by a robot across an alien landscape.
And now, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) — with the help of a Canada-based researcher — spotted the tracks made by the 840 kg (1,850 lb) Lunokhod 2, leading to the dead rover itself, next to a crater where it broke down after 4 months of hard moon driving.
On Monday, the LRO mission released 10 Terabytes (that’s about 100 times the storage capacity of my laptop) of image data to the public. This might sound a little overwhelming, but Phil Stooke, a professor at The University of Western Ontario, has an intimate knowledge of the lunar geography (having written the 2007 reference book The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration) and knew exactly where to look.
“The tracks were visible at once,” said Stooke. “Knowing the history of the mission, it’s possible to trace the rover’s activities in fine detail.”
“We can see where it measured the magnetic field, driving back and forth over the same route to improve the data. And we can also see where it drove into a small crater, and accidentally covered its heat radiator with soil as it struggled to get out again. That ultimately caused it to overheat and stop working. And the rover itself shows up as a dark spot right where it stopped.”
On June 4, 1973, it was announced that Lunokhod 2 had stopped communicating with its controllers in Soviet Russia. It was believed that the rover’s open lid (which was closed during lunar night to retain heat) dug into the side of a crater wall, collecting a mound of dust. When it was closed during lunar night, the dust was dropped over its radiators.
During the next lunar day, sunlight heated the dust (which is a very efficient insulator), overloading the radiators and roasting the rover. Lunokhod 2 overheated and probably failed some time during May 1973.
Despite its accidental overheating, Lunokhod 2 was a very successful mission, sending back 86 panoramic images and over 80,000 TV pictures to Earth. Many science experiments were also carried out.
Interestingly, as it only takes light a little over a second to travel from the Earth to the Moon, Lunokhod 2 was controlled in “real time” by 5 operators.
Other Russian hardware has been imaged by the LRO, including the sample return missions Luna 20, Luna 23, and Luna 24. These latest detailed images of man-made equipment on the lunar surface comes soon after the Apollo landing sites were imaged, for the first time, last year.
Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Sergei Gerasimenko/Sasha Basilevsky