Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

First creatures to embark on interstellar travel within a generation

Scientists are planning to send the first creatures on a journey beyond the solar system within a generation, using laser-propelled spaceships and suspended animation.

“Humanity has dreamed of interstellar flight for more than 100 years. We are working on bringing this dream to reality for all of us, but particularly for the next generation,” said Philip Lubin, a physicist at University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and leader of the university’s Experimental Cosmology Group, where he is pioneering the research with colleague Joel Rothman.

The would-be interstellar astronauts are nematodes and tardigrades, microscopic creatures commonly used in scientific research, which would be used to assess the viability of stasis as a means of achieving interstellar travel.

“Following the longest voyage ever taken by a terrestrial creature, we can wake them up and ask how they’re enjoying the trip, whether they reproduce normally and how well they remember what we taught them on Earth,” said Rothman, a biologist at UCSB.

A proposed laser-propelled sail. Image courtesy of Adrian Mann / UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group

The journey will be taken on tiny spacecraft propelled by lasers, which are currently being developed in a NASA-backed project at UCSB known as Starlight.

These spacecraft, which have been dubbed spacechips, are radically different from those currently in use, involving the  highly focused projection of energy in the form of light – a laser beam – onto a ‘sail’ made up of large mirrors.

Currently in the very early stages of development, they are considered the most promising approach to interstellar travel, and could one day, likely in the far future, be used to transport humans across the stars.

Initially, however, they will only be capable of carrying very small payloads, which is why microscopic creatures have been selected to be the first passengers.

The beloved tardigrade, which will be one of the first creatures to be sent on an interstellar mission

The creatures themselves, nematodes and tardigrades, the latter of which are also known as water bears, have been selected as they have already been used in a multitude of Earth and space-based experiments, making them species where much is known about their behaviour and biology.

Tardigrades also have been subject of considerable attention from the popular science community due to their bizarre yet almost cute appearance and their astonishing hardiness. Resistant to asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts and supernovae, it is thought that they will be the last creatures to survive on Earth long after every other species has perished.

The project will be showcased at the Raw Science Film Festival, which is taking place later this week in Santa Barbara.