Thursday, April 29, 2010

NASA Finds Long-Lost Soviet Lunar Rover

The Lunokhod 1 Rover

NASA launched its Lunar Reconnissance Orbiter last year to scout possible locations for future lunar landings/bases for the now defunct Constellation program. Now, even with Moon missions dead, the Orbiter still circles the Moon. On a recent pass, something from the Cold War era was found: a dead Soviet lunar rover!

Lunokhod 1 landed on the Moon on November 17, 1970 and traveled around the Moon for nearly a year, transmitting back information about components of lunar soil and geography. Hwever, all good things must come to an end. Lunokhod's signal was lost on September 14, 1971 and its location was a mystery for nearly 40 years until just a few days ago when the rover was spotted in high resolution photographs of the lunar surface.

Despite being a dead Cold War relic, Lunokhod still has the potential to help science! One feature of the rover was a large mirror designed to reflect laser beams back to Earth. The Apollo missions planted similar reflectors on the lunar surface, too. In the years since Apollo, these reflectors have established. the fact that the Moon is moving away from the Earth at a rate of 40mm per year.

Now, with Lunokhod 1 found scientists will have yet another vantage point at which to direct laser beams for future study dealing with variations in Einstein's theory of general relativity as laser measurements can measure the Moon's orbit to within a millimeter of accuracy!
Scierntists had long known this potential for the dead rover. as a result, a team led by UC San Diego's Tom Murphy had been searching for the rover for years. Failure to find it caused some fear that the rover had fallen into a ravine or that it had tipped over, making the mirror unusable. As it turns out, the team was merely scouring the wrong location, as the rover was several miles from its estimated location.

Even Russian scientists have taken note of the achievement, with Ruslan Kuzmin commenting that he felt a "deep interior excitement" upon the news that Lunokhod 1 had been found, and further calling the LRO camera "a fantastic instrument."

So, with the Cold War a thing of the past and the rover located, expect its contributions to science to continue for years to come.

Lunokhod 1's final resting place

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