Most spacecraft that reach the Moon are designed to orbit or fly past it; however, certain can land directly on its surface; those are the spacecraft we will focus on in this article.
Apollo 11 made history when Armstrong and Aldrin took “one small step for man, one giant leap for humanity” by landing on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
On this date, the first Luna series spacecraft successfully released from Earth’s gravity and headed for lunar orbit. Equipped with radio equipment, tracking transmitters and magnetometers to study its magnetic field and radiation patterns, it began its journey toward exploration.
Scientists were able to use it as an experiment to examine how gases behave in space. Furthermore, it became the first spacecraft ever to achieve escape velocity.
Surveyor 2 was involved in an unsuccessful trajectory correction maneuver and crashed into the Ocean of Storms east of Crater Galilei.
On September 14, 1959, the Soviets created history when their second Cosmic Rocket spacecraft, Luna 2 (Luna in Russian and Lunik 2 in Western news reports), hit the Moon. It marked the first time any human-made object ever had touched another celestial body.
Luna 2 was another spherical satellite like Sputnik that featured protruding antennae, housing scintillation counters, geiger counters, micrometeorite detectors and magnetometers – as well as carrying temperature-resistant film from a CIA reconnaissance balloon that had been captured by Soviet agents.
In October 1959, a Soviet probe known as Luna 3 took photos of the far side of the Moon that forever altered how scientists understood our planet’s sole natural satellite.
Yenisey 2 cameras equipped with temperature and radiation-resistant isochrome film were installed aboard. A photocell was used to automatically trigger photographic sequences after sensing Moon surface features; images alternated among cameras before an onboard film processing unit developed, fixed, and dried them for processing.
This unmanned spacecraft landed in the lunar highlands near Tycho crater. Using its scoop, it measured lunar rocks while taking over 6,300 images and mapping out soil composition.
Though not successful in landing softly, Luna 2 demonstrated technology essential to future crewed missions. Its photographs of the far side of the Moon provided information for NASA’s Apollo program. Ranger and Pioneer spacecraft also conducted lunar landings and took circumlunar photographs.
The spacecraft was the first to capture photos of the Moon’s far side. After taking several composite images, controllers decided to intentionally crash it into crater Copernicus near its lunar surface and destroy its sensors.
This probe used its scoop to “weigh” lunar rocks, which allowed scientists to accurately determine their composition. Its mission concluded successfully and ended on January 31, 1968 – after sending radio signals back to Jodrell Bank Observatory on Earth that confirmed its impact.
Luna 6 was an unsuccessful Soviet unmanned lunar soft lander. A miscalculation during mid-course correction maneuver caused Luna 6 to miss its target orbit of Earth rather than land on the Moon as planned, although ground controllers performed all the motions associated with lunar landing in preparation, including jettisoning its lander and deploying airbags as practice for future attempts at landing on Mars or Venus.
The spacecraft completed 277 orbits. Its hermetically sealed capsule housed battery power sources, radio equipment, and television system components.
Clementine completed an extended mission that outlived Apollo 13 before exhausting its thrusters and colliding into the Moon, where its light reflector has since provided important ranging data for scientists.
Pioneer 4 passed by the Moon but did not enter lunar orbit, gathering important radiation data and discovering an outer Van Allen belt. Japan sent their inaugural lunar probe in January 1990 – HITEN – which explored its environment and gravity fields.
After Apollo 13, NASA established plans to send back human crew members. However, until their next mission took place in 1977, robotic spacecraft would serve in this role.
This spacecraft successfully soft-landed in the Sea of Rains and deployed Russia’s inaugural lunar rover, Lunokhod 1. It took color television pictures of the Moon while also studying its space environment between Earth and our satellite. Furthermore, this was also the inaugural deep space probe designed by Lavochkin design bureau.
The lander was constructed as a sphere, covered with an insulating layer which was inflating just prior to impact for a relatively soft landing. Its spacecraft bus was designed so it would roll right side up upon contact, providing for a relatively soft landing experience.
Surveyor 2 was designed to test technology for future lunar explorers. After completing several orbits and sending back many photos, one of its thrusters failed during mid-course correction and sent it hurtling out of control, eventually colliding into Sinus Medii on its descent back to Earth.