While the United States was the first nation to put man on the moon, the Soviet Union was the first nation to put a robotic probe on the moon. The probe, the Lunokhod 1, was a remote controlled robot that carried out a few experiments and sent back photos. The robot conducted over 500 soil tests and transmitted 20 thousand television pictures and 200 television panoramas. The robot lived for nearly 11 months, which is about eight months longer than it’s Soviet designers originally thought. During that time, it traveled over ten thousand meters, quite a distance considering it was controlled by a team of people on earth who had to deal with a 34 minute delay. 17 minutes from the time a command is issued until the time the robot actually carried it out and then another 17 minutes to see the result of the command.
Driven by joystick, the original ‘pilot’ and designers quickly realized a fundamental flaw in the design of the robot: the camera used to pilot the robot was too low and caused a considerable problem with trying to figure out where to go.
The original purpose of the robot was to put a Soviet built craft on the moon, scout locations for potential lunar bases and provide a radio beacon. A political reason was to beat the Americans to the moon. Unfortunately for them, technical problems, politics and a disastrous launch attempt put the program way behind the Americans, who landed the Eagle on the moon in July of 1969. As a result of the American moon landing, the Soviet space program changed its focus and the Lunokhod mission was changed to that of exploration and experiments. The first Lunokhod was ready to launch prior to July of 1969 and, in fact, it was launched but, shortly after clearing the pad, the Proton rocket that carried the robot exploded, which resulted in the loss of the robot. A second robot was built and launched a year later on November 10, 1970.
The design of the robot was pretty advanced, considering the state of technology at the time. A unique feature of the robot was the kettle like design of the body. The ‘lid’ was designed to open during the lunar day to gather power via its solar cells. During the lunar night, the lid was closed and a nuclear powered heater would keep the robots innards warm. The wheels, which the designers spent a great deal of time working on, are unique in their design. The designers originally designed tanks for the Soviet military and, as such, were more inclined to use tank like treads. However, they realized that treads would require more power and, thus, decided on wheels instead. The wheels they came up with were designed to allow soil to pass through yet were able to give the robot the traction it needed. The were an ingenious design.
The robot was also equipped with several experiments, including an X-Ray spectrometer, X-Ray telescope, cosmic ray detectors and a laser. It also featured four television cameras.
A second robot, Lunokhod 2, landed on the moon on January 15, 1973 and lasted about four months and travelled a whopping 37 km (23 miles.) The third Lunokhod, Lunokhod 3, never made it to the moon and is now in a museum.
Regardless of the politics and original reason for putting such a device on the moon, the Lunokhod 1 was a remarkable achievement. It was full of untested technology and the notion of putting a rover on another celestial body was something that would not happen again until the late 1990’s when the United States put the Mars Rover on the surface of the Red Planet.
For a bit more technical discussion of this remarkable device, go here. Zarya.info also has information on a variety of Soviet, Russian and other international space missions.