Lunokhod 2: The Little Tub That Could

Forty years ago today, on 8 January 1973, the Soviet Union launched the second of two audacious robotic missions to the moon.

While we have been celebrating the current and recent American Mars rover missions – and justly so – the mission of Lunokhod 2 still holds important places in the record books. The Soviet space program was ambitious, and even after the American Apollo program had landed astronauts on the moon and returned them to earth, the Soviet space planners were working on their own long-term goal of exploration and possibly building a lunar base.

The Soviet program made it to an amazing step, with the landing of two rovers on the moon, named Lunokhod 1 and Lunokhod 2. It was on 8 January 1973 that the lander named Luna 21 was launched toward the moon, landing there on 15 January. The complex, bathtub-shaped rover rolled out of the lander on the 16th, and after a checkout period, embarked on a six month exploration of the moon’s surface.

Approximate locations of the two Lunokhod rover missions.

Approximate locations of the two Lunokhod rover missions. Luna 17/Lunokhod 1 landed on the western edge of Mare Imbrium in 1970. Luna 21/Lunokhod 2 landed on the eastern edge of Mare Serenitatis in 1973, about 120 km north of the landing site of Apollo 17.

Lunokhod 1 had also been a success, three years earlier. It had functioned well for ten months, and eventually covered 10 km. Lunokhod 2 travelled further, but ran into trouble, literally, in June of 1973 when it apparently brushed against the wall of a crater. This impact may have knocked debris into vital parts, and over a few days, Lunokhod 2 stopped working.

The Soviet space program’s efforts to reach the moon came to a halt in the 1970s, with tragic failures of the very large launch vehicles that would have been their counterparts to the American Saturn V.

Although it’s been forty years since Lunokhod 2’s mission, that wasn’t the end of the line for Russian lunar rovers. Russia and India are now planning a joint mission in the coming years to put a new, solar-powered rover on the moon’s surface. The  Chandrayaan-2 mission may be launched in 2016, and will feature a lander built in India and a rover built in Russia. Unlike the Lunokhod rovers, which weighed over 1,700 kg each and were powered in part by radioisotopes (for heat; electricity was provided during the lunar day by solar panels), the proposed new rover will be much smaller – perhaps 100 kg – and solar powered).


NASA has posted photos taken from lunar orbit of the Luna landers and their Lunokhad rovers:

Updates on the timing of the joint Russian-Indian lunar rover mission: