Courtesy of NASA/NSSDC

Luna was the Soviet Union’s program to explore the Moon from 1959 through 1976. Of 24 missions, 20 were successful and achieved a number of notable lunar "firsts": first probe to impact the Moon, first flyby and image of the lunar farside, first soft landing, first lunar orbiter, and the first circumlunar probe to return to Earth. All of the missions were unmanned flights, but they resulted in photographs and spacecraft landings.

January 2, 1959 (Luna 1) to August 14, 1976 (Luna 24)


(selected missions)

Luna 2 (hard lander): Luna 2's instrument package reached the surface of the Moon on September 14, 1959. The first spacecraft to land on the Moon, it hit the lunar surface east of the Sea of Serenity near the Aristides, Archimedes, and Autolycus craters. About 30 minutes after Luna 2, the last stage of its rocket also hit the Moon.

Luna 3 (farside flyby): Luna 3, an automatic interplanetary station, was equipped with radio communication and telemetering systems, a television system with an automatic film-processing unit, a set of scientific instruments, systems for orientation relative to the Sun and Moon, solar cells for electric power, and a temperature-control system. This spacecraft was controlled by radio command from Earth. It was launched on a trajectory that bent over the Moon and was in view of the far side of the Moon. On October 7, 1959, the television system took photographs that were developed on the spacecraft. The photographs were scanned and were radio-transmitted to ground stations in facsimile form on October 18, 1959. The spacecraft returned very indistinct pictures, but, through computer enhancement, a tentative atlas of the lunar farside was produced.

Luna 9 (soft lander): Luna 9 was the first spacecraft to achieve a lunar soft landing and to transmit photographic data to Earth. The automatic lunar station that landed weighed 99 kg. It contained radio equipment, a program timing device, heat-control systems, scientific apparatus, power sources, and a television system. After the spacecraft landed in the Ocean of Storms on February 3, 1966, its four petals opened out and stabilized it on the lunar surface. Spring-controlled antennas assumed operating positions, and the television-camera mirror system, which operated by revolving and tilting, began a photographic survey of the lunar environment. Seven radio sessions, totaling 8 hours and 5 minutes, were transmitted, as were three series of television pictures. The photographs provided a panoramic view of the nearby lunar surface. The pictures included views of nearby rocks and of the horizon 1.4 km away from the spacecraft.

Luna 10 (lunar orbiter): Luna 10 was launched toward the Moon from an Earth-orbiting platform and entered lunar orbit on April 4, 1966. Scientific instruments included a gamma-ray spectrometer, a magnetometer, a meteorite detector, instruments for solar-plasma studies, and devices for measuring infrared emissions from the Moon and radiation conditions of the lunar environment. Gravitational studies were also conducted. The spacecraft played back to Earth the "Internationale" during the 23d Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Luna 10 was battery-powered and operated for 460 lunar orbits and 219 active data transmissions before radio signals stopped on May 30, 1966.

Luna 11 (lunar orbiter): Luna 11 was launched toward the Moon from an Earth-orbiting platform and entered lunar orbit on August 28, 1966. The objectives of the mission included the study of lunar gamma- and X-ray emissions in order to determine the Moon's chemical composition; lunar gravitational anomalies; the concentration of meteorite streams near the Moon; and the intensity of radiation near the Moon. A total of 137 radio transmissions and 277 lunar orbits were completed before the batteries failed on October 1, 1966.

Luna 12 (lunar orbiter): Luna 12 was launched toward the Moon from an Earth-orbiting platform and achieved lunar orbit on October 25, 1966. The spacecraft was equipped with a television system that obtained and transmitted photographs of the lunar surface. The photographs contained 1100 scan lines with a maximum resolution of 14.9 to 19.8 m. Pictures of the lunar surface were returned on October 27, 1966. Radio transmissions from Luna 12 ceased on January 19, 1967, after 602 lunar orbits and 302 radio transmissions.

Luna 13 (lunar soft lander): Luna 13 was launched toward the Moon from an Earth-orbiting platform and accomplished a soft landing on December 24, 1966, near the Ocean of Storms. The petal encasement of the spacecraft opened, antennas emerged, and radio transmissions to Earth began 4 minutes after the landing. On December 25 and 26, 1966, the spacecraft television system transmitted panoramas of the nearby lunar landscape at different sun angles. Each panorama took about 100 minutes to transmit. The spacecraft had a mechanical soil-measuring device and instruments for obtaining data on mechanical and physical properties of the lunar surface. It is believed that transmissions from the spacecraft ceased before the end of December 1966.

Luna 14 (lunar orbiter): Luna 14 entered lunar orbit on April 10, 1966. The spacecraft instrumentation was like that of Luna 10. It provided data for studies of the interaction of Earth with lunar masses, the lunar gravitational field, the propagation and stability of radio communications to the spacecraft at different orbital positions, solar charged particles and cosmic rays, and the motion of the Moon. This flight was the last in the second generation of the Luna series.

Luna 15 (lunar lander): This spacecraft was designed to beat Apollo 11 to the Moon and was launched on July 13, 1969. The Soviets attempted to land on the Moon with a robot spacecraft and collect and return a small sample of lunar soil to Earth. This attempt failed when Luna 15 crashed on the Moon's surface (in the Sea of Crises) on July 21, 1969.

Luna 16 (lunar lander): Luna 16 was the first successful Luna mission launched with the massive proton booster rocket. Luna 16 entered lunar orbit on September 17, 1970. On September 20, the spacecraft soft-landed on the lunar surface in the Sea of Fertility as planned. According to the Bochum Radio Space Observatory in the Federal Republic of Germany, the spacecraft returned good-quality television pictures. Such pictures were never made available to the U.S., so the reliability of the Bochum report is questionable. The spacecraft was equipped with an extendable arm with a drilling rig for collecting a lunar soil sample. After 26 hours and 25 minutes on the lunar surface, the ascent stage, with a hermetically sealed soil-sample container, left the lunar surface. It landed in the Soviet Union on September 24, 1970. The lower stage of Luna 16 remained on the lunar surface and continued transmission of lunar temperature and radiation data.

Luna 17 (lunar lander and rover): Luna 17 entered lunar orbit on November 15, 1970. The spacecraft landed in the Sea of Rains. The spacecraft had dual ramps by which the payload, Lunokhod 1, descended to the lunar surface. Lunokhod 1 was a lunar vehicle with a tublike compartment and a large convex lid, set on eight independently powered wheels. It had a cone-shaped antenna, a highly directional helical antenna, four television cameras, and special extendable devices to impact the lunar soil for soil density and mechanical property tests. An X-ray spectrometer, an X-ray telescope, cosmic-ray detectors, and a laser device were also included. The vehicle was powered by a solar-cell array mounted on the underside of the lid. Lunokhod was intended to operate for 3 lunar days but actually operated for 11 lunar days. The operations of Lunokhod officially ceased on October 4, 1971, the anniversary of Sputnik 1. Lunokhod traveled 10.54 km and transmitted more than 20,000 television pictures and more than 200 television panoramas. It also conducted more than 500 lunar soil tests.

Luna 19 (lunar orbiter): Luna 19 was placed in lunar orbit on October 3, 1971. It studied lunar gravitational fields and mass concentrations. It also studied the lunar radiation environment, the gamma-active lunar surface, and the solar wind. Photographic coverage was via a television system.

Luna 20 (lunar lander): Luna 20 entered lunar orbit on February 18, 1972. On February 21, 1972, it landed on the Moon in a mountainous area near the Sea of Fertility, 120 km from where Luna 16 had landed. On the lunar surface, television cameras were positioned to make circular scans of the area with a viewing angle of 30°. A panoramic picture containing an image of Earth was obtained, and all operations of the drill experiment were photographed. An extendable drilling apparatus took lunar samples. The Luna 20 drill operated at 500 rpm, and it took 30 minutes for the entire length of the drill to penetrate any kind of soil. The drill penetrated to a depth of 250 mm into the lunar surface. The sample was placed in a special ampule and was hermetically sealed. Luna 20 was launched from the lunar surface on February 22, 1972, and landed in the Soviet Union on February 25, 1972. The lunar samples were recovered the next day.

Luna 21 (lunar lander and rover): Luna 21 delivered the Lunokhod 2 rover to the Sea of Serenity. The rover spent 4 months taking photographs and conducting experiments while traveling 37 km.

Luna 22 (lunar orbiter): The main objectives of Luna 22 were investigations of the Moon and of the region surrounding the Moon.

Luna 24 (lunar lander): The last of the Luna series of spacecraft, Luna 24 was the third Soviet mission to retrieve lunar ground samples (the first two were returned by Luna 16 and Luna 20). The probe landed in the Sea of Crisis. The mission successfully returned the sample to Earth on August 22, 1976.