Russian Space Mystery Solved, Spacecraft Found Toppled On Moon

Graphic illustrates the planned mission of Luna 23. Use large sampling arm to drill into surface then swing the sample up to fill Earth reentry vehicle for ascent stage blastoff back to Earth. Photo Credit: Lavochkin

A nearly 40-year-old mystery about a major Soviet Moon mission failure has been solved by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft.

A several hundred million dollar mission to robotically gather lunar samples and return them to Earth failed when the Luna 23 spacecraft toppled over on its side wrecking any chances for the spacecraft to work, images from the LRO cameras show.

The Soviet Luna 23 spacecraft was launched in November, 1974 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It was a large vehicle meant to land on the Moon then drill deeply into the lunar surface to obtain samples that it would then fire back to Earth for study.

After 11 major failures two previous spacecraft, Luna 16 in September, 1970 and Luna 20 in February, 1972 had previously done that successfully.

LRO High Resolution Camera system image of the Luna 23 spacecraft shows it in context with the terrain context and larger. Note the spacecraft has clearly toppled over on its side, most clearly indicated by the large silver avionics canister atop the ascent stage (A) lying on ground attached to descent stage (D). Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

The magnitude of the program was enormous to build and program the spacecraft and build the test the large Proton rockets needed to fly these missions to the Moon.

Luna 23 was to be the last or next to last Soviet spacecraft to do that, essentially terminating a Russian lunar program that had been trying to upstage the Americans for more than 15 years.

After the success of the U. S. manned Apollo program that returned about 800 lb. of lunar samples, the Soviet return of 50-100 grams of material per flight seemed  trivial on the world stage

Luna 23 maintained radio contact with Earth after touch down on Mare Crisium, but ground controllers feared from telemetry that it had landed at too high a velocity.

It was to immediately lower its sampling drill then transfer its precious load of lunar material to a basketball sized ablative covered Earth reentry vehicle mounted atop a the bright silver canister of electronics attached to a propulsion stage.

Lavochkin technician works near bright silver Earth return avionics canister (point A in LRO image above)topped with Earth reentry sphere to carry samples. At bottom of canister are ascent rocket propellant tanks. Photo Credit: Lavochkin

If everything had gone as planned it would have been fired back to Earth within about 24 hr. But after 3 days of communications and no sampling activities, Luna 23 went dead.

Two years later in an impressive feat of targeting, the Soviets managed to command the identical Lunar 24 sample return spacecraft to land within 1.5 mi. of the long dead Luna 23 to sample the same area of the Moon. Luna 24 performed as planned and returned samples to Earth.

Graphic shows the liftoff of the Luna 24 sample return ascent stage in August, 1976 the last Soviet mission to the Moon. Photo Credit: Lavochkin/Russian Space Web

That ended the Soviet lunar program to the present day and Luna 23 was forgotten. But not by the Goddard and Arizona State LRO team. They began to search images of Mare Crisium and found Luna 23, toppled over.

Its bright upper canister was unmistakable lying on its side atop the large mass of the lander and ascent propulsion systems.

They also found Luna 24, looking upright but much different without its upper stage just 1.5 mi. to the northeast. Its upper stage and reentry vehicle had delivered 170 grams of lunar material to Earth in August, 1976.

Ironically I had a profound experience in the Lavochkin Space Museum in Moscow with engineering versions of all the company’s planetary spacecraft, especially the Luna sample return vehicle.

In 1989 when I visited, it was on the Lavochkin factory campus then not open to public, but a really wonderful museum. Now it is open to public.

The curator who took me around was also one of the engineers who put Yuri Gagarin into Vostok 1.

At the end of the visit he took me back to the engineering version of the Luna sample return spacecraft and handed me one of the three return spheres that had actually brought samples back from the lunar surface.

“Its been on the Mooooooon,” he said with a heavy Russian accent and appropriate reverence. And it was an unforgettable moment for me to get to hold one of those sample spheres(Lavochkin image below)

But then he asked “Have you ever touched anything that has been on the Moooooon?”,   again with great reverence. He rightfully expected me to say something like, “Of course not.”

But I blurted out “Yes, Neil Armstrong.” —-and he slumped crestfallen.

Then I felt bad–and still do.  But he did ask the question.

Photo Credit: Lavochkin

 

 

 

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