This Day In History

First spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the Moon

Soviet spacecraft Luna 1 became the first man-made object to reach the vicinity of the moon after its launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome by a Luna 8K72 rocket on January 2, 1959.

The plan for Luna 1 had been to conduct in-flight scientific measurements then crash into the moon. It carried two metallic pennants with the Soviet coat of arms to mark its presence there, but a malfunction in the ground-based control system caused an error in the rocket’s burntime and the spacecraft missed the target and flew by the moon at a distance of 5995 km at the closest point.

It became first man-made object to reach heliocentric orbit. Its orbit lies between those of Earth and Mars. Meanwhile, its sister craft, Luna 2, would become the first man-made object to reach the moon in September of the same year.

Luna 1, first known as “First Cosmic Ship,” then known as “Mechta” (Russian for “dream”), traveled through the outer Van Allen radiation belt, allowing the spacecraft’s scintillator to make observations indicating that a small number of high energy particles exist in the outer belt.

Luna 1 also found the moon to have no detectable magnetic field, made the first ever direct observations and measurements of solar wind, and marked the first instance of radio communication at the half-million-kilometer distance.

On January 3, 1959, at a distance of 119,500 km from Earth, a large (1 kg) cloud of sodium gas was released by Luna 1, thus making this probe also the first artificial comet. Its glowing orange trail of gas was visible over the Indian Ocean with the brightness of a sixth-magnitude star for a few minutes. Luna 1 passed within 5995 km of the moon’s surface on January 4, 1959, after 34 hours of flight.    —Edn