History of solar system exploration: Moon

I won’t be covering Earth in this series, since our planet has been observed the hard way for thousands of years, and the number of Earth-observation satellites would likely be too numerous to bother with. We’ll simply assume that Earth began as already observed, and so we move to our Moon, proper name: Luna.

As long as there have been humans, as long as there has been life, the Moon was visible in sky. The ancients assumed it was perfectly smooth, but Galileo crushed this idea when he turned his telescope on it and saw mountains and valleys and craters. This is one of the easiest astronomical things to see: point a telescope at the terminator and you’ll see it broken up as it rises and falls along the geography. The Moon is special in that it is the only extraterrestrial world that humans have set foot on (so far).

Modern Exploration of the Moon (Luna):

  • Luna 1 (1959) – A Soviet flyby mission that passed the Moon and entered a heliocentric orbit. Made observations about Earth’s radiation belt, the fact that the Moon has no magnetic field, and directly observed and measured the solar wind.
  • Pioneer 4 (1959) – First US probe to perform a flyby of the Moon and escape Earth’s gravity well. Returned radiation data.
  • Luna 2 (1959) – A Soviet lunar impactor. Showed that there was no appreciable lunar magnetic field (to higher precision than before) and that the Moon had no radiation belts.
  • Luna 3 (1959) – The third Soviet flyby mission. Luna 3 had photography equipment and took the first low-resolution shots of the far side of the Moon.
  • Ranger 7 (1964) – Following the failures of the previous six missions of the Ranger program, NASA and the JPL were reorganized and successfully launched Ranger 7, the first successful US lunar impactor. It took the first closeups (some 4300 pictures) of the Moon by the US space program as it descended.
  • Ranger 8 (1965) – Similar to Ranger 7, this US impactor took some 7000 images on its impact course.
  • Ranger 9 (1965) – Another similar US impactor (Rangers 6, 7, 8, and 9 were all of similar Block 3 design), it returned about 5800 images and showed evidence of craters within craters.
  • Zond 3 (1965) – Soviet flyby mission that took some (for the time) good quality pictures. Here’s a modern reconstruction of the Zond 3’s images into a mosaic.
  • Luna 9 (1966) – After a series of failures, this Soviet mission was the first to achieve a soft landing on the lunar surface, the first on any extraterrestrial world. Notably, this success showed that the Moon had a hard surface since it did no sink into dust.
  • Luna 10 (1966) – Soviet lunar orbiter mission, the first successful orbital insertion about another world. Carried out numerous scientific tests afforded by being in stable orbit.
  • Surveyor 1 (1966) – The first US soft landing, carried a TV camera and returned video.
  • Lunar Orbiter 1 (1966) – The first US lunar orbiter, continuing the ongoing effort of photographing the Moon in ever-higher resolution. Notable for returning the first shots of Earth from the Moon.
  • Luna 11 (1966) – Soviet orbiter that used gamma and X-ray emissions to study the chemical composition of the Moon.
  • Luna 12 (1966) – Soviet orbiter that took more surface photographs.
  • Lunar Orbiter 2 (1966) – NASA orbiter primarily designed to photograph potential manned landing sites.
  • Luna 13 (1966) – Soviet soft-landing mission that performed numerous tests of the lunar surface.
  • Lunar Orbiter 3 (1967) – NASA orbiter similar to LO2, with the intent of mapping out possible manned landing sites.
  • Surveyor 3 (1967) – NASA lander that performed soil sample tests and took about 6300 TV images.
  • Lunar Orbiter 4 (1967) –  NASA orbiter. Given that the previous Lunar Orbiter missions had successfully surveyed potential landing sites LO4 was devoted to a broad systematic mapping effort of the near-side of the Lunar surface.
  • Explorer 35 (1967) – NASA orbiter that entered lunar orbit to conduct tests on interplanetary space.
  • Lunar Orbiter 5 (1967) – NASA orbiter that performed further reconnaissance of potential landing sites as well as a broad mapping effort of the far side of the Moon.
  • Surveyor 5 (1967) – NASA lander that returned some 19,000 images and did some analysis of the lunar surface.
  • Surveyor 6 (1967) – NASA lander similar to Surveyor 5; returned some 30,000 images.
  • Surveyor 7 (1968) – NASA similar similar to the previous two missions; returned about 21,000 images.
  • Luna 14 (1968) – Soviet orbiter believed to be similar to Luna 12.
  • Zond 5 (1968) – Soviet lunar return mission; the first human craft to circle the Moon and return to Earth. Carried a biological payload that was recovered and examined after splashdown.
  • Zond 6 (1968) – Similar to Zond 5, performing a circumlunar journey and returning to Earth. However, before reentry an accident occurred that depressurized the cabin killing all the biological samples aboard.
  • Apollo 8 (1968) – NASA crewed mission that performed a circumlunar orbit and return its crew of 3 safely to Earth. They took the first photograph by humans of an Earthrise.
  • Apollo 10 (1969) – NASA crewed orbiter mission, performing a dry run of an actual crewed lunar landing. Took the first color Earthrise photo.
  • Apollo 11 (1969) – NASA crewed landing, the first time humans have ever set foot on another world. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Also collected and returned samples.
  • Zond 7 (1969) – Soviet lunar return mission to test spaceflight operations. Had it been crewed, it would have successfully return the cosmonauts safely.
  • Apollo 12 (1969) – Second NASA crewed landing and safe return. Landed near the Surveyor 3 probe which the astronauts dutifully posed by.
  • Apollo 13 (1970) – NASA attempted crewed landing, but failed due to an oxygen tank exploding. It still performed a circumlunar trajectory and safely return its crew to Earth.
  • Luna 16 (1970) – Soviet sample return mission, the first robotic probe to do so.
  • Zond 8 (1970) – Soviet circumlunar return mission, performing spacecraft testing.
  • Luna 17 (1970) – Soviet lander and rover mission, the first robotic rover on the Moon.
  • Apollo 14 (1971) – NASA crewed landing and safe return. The last of the Apollo H missions that called for two days on the lunar surface.
  • Apollo 15 (1971) – NASA crewed landing and safe return. The first of the the longer-duration Apollo J missions that called for greater emphasis on scientific work. Performed the famous hammer-and-feather Galilean experiment.
  • Luna 19 (1971) – Soviet orbiter that spent more than a year orbiting the moon, performing some 4000 orbits.
  • Luna 20 (1972) – Soviet sample return mission.
  • Apollo 16 (1972) – NASA crewed landing and safe return. The astronauts performed extensive geological training for this mission, in keeping with the emphasis on science of the later Apollo missions.
  • Apollo 17 (1972) – NASA crewed landing and safe return. This was the last time humans set foot on another world as of 2012. Was the first (and last) Apollo mission to have a dedicated scientist as a crewmember.
  • Luna 21 (1973) – Soviet lunar rover mission. Sent back over 80,000 TV images and then accidentally rolled into a crater and was lost.
  • Explorer 49 (1973) – NASA lunar orbiter designed to perform radio astronomy. One of the largest spacecraft ever built. Would be the last US mission to the Moon for two decades.
  • Luna 22 (1974) – Soviet lunar orbiter that contained a variety of scientific instruments.
  • Luna 23 (1974) – Soviet lander that was intended to be a sample return mission but a malfunction prevented it from achieving its objectives. Limited scientific tests were still performed.
  • Luna 24 (1976) – Soviet lander and sample return mission that landed near Luna 23 and successfully completed its objective. It was the last Soviet lunar mission.
  • Hiten (1990) – More than a decade had passed with a lunar mission, until the Japanese ISAS organization launched its first lunar orbiter. As for instruments, it only carried a dust counter.
  • Clementine (1994) – NASA lunar orbiter that performed a variety of scientific studies including mapping the lunar surface with a high-resolution camera and LIDAR.
  • AsiaSat 3 (1997) – A commercial satellite that was rescued from an unstable geosynchronous orbit by performing lunar flybys, becoming effectively the first commercial lunar mission.
  • Lunar Prospector (1998) – NASA lunar orbiter that contained a variety of scientific instruments, allowing for a detailed study of the Moon’s surface composition.
  • SMART-1 (2003) – ESA lunar orbiter, part of a program to design and build small, cheap spacecraft. The second great wave of lunar missions was beginning.
  • SELENE (2007) – Japanese ISAS (now JAXA) lunar orbiter mission that carried 13 scientific instruments. The detailed topography data was made available to Google to construct Google Moon.
  • Chang’e 1 (2007) – The first Chinese probe (operated by CNSA), both an orbiter and an impactor that carried 24 scientific instruments.
  • Chandrayaan-1 (2008) – The first India probe (operated by ISRO), a lunar orbiter and impactor mission. Carried 11 scientific instruments. Discovered large subsurface caves on the Moon.
  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (2009) – NASA orbiter carrying six instruments. The LRO’s high-resolution camera allowed photographs of the Apollo mission landing sites to be made clearly visible, for example: Apollo 11. Ongoing.
  • LCROSS (2009) – NASA robotic impactor built with the intention of being a low-cost way of determining the nature of polar hydrogen on the Moon. Successfully detected water in polar craters.
  • Chang’e 2 (2010) – CNSA lunar orbiter, similar to the Chang’e 1 mission but took a closer orbit allowing for higher resolution data to be obtained. Designed to assess potential landing sites for a robotic lander. Ongoing.
  • GRAIL (2011) – NASA orbiter, the Gravity Recover and Interior Laboratory consists of two small spacecraft that, in concert, are planned to map out the gravitational field of the Moon to determine its internal structure. Ongoing.
  • LADEE (2013?) – Planned NASA orbiter with the intention of studying the lunar atmosphere and nearby dust.
  • Chang’e 3 (2013?) – Planned CNSA lunar lander and rover.
  • Chandrayaan-2 (2014?) – Planned ISRO lunar mission composed of an orbiter, lander, and rover.
  • Luna-Glob (2014?) – Planned Russian (RFSA) lunar program, composed of a series of missions.
  • International Lunar Network (2014?) – Planned international series of missions to begin the middle of the decade to built a network of nodes on the lunar surface.
  • Astrobiotic Technology Lander (2014?) – Planned privately-held commercial lander mission, using the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
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