The Lunokhod lunar rover - one of only a few ever to be displayed outside of the former Soviet Union - was part of the Luna program, a bold series ofexperiments that sent nine unmanned remote-controlled robot spacecraft into lunar orbit and to the surface of the moon. Lunokhod means Moonwalker in Russian.
Two of the spacecraft that successfully landed on the Moon - Luna 17 and Luna 21 - carried Lunokhod rovers, which, remote-controlled from Earth, explored the lunar surface and sent back large amounts of scientific information and photographs.
Secretly launched by the Soviet Union atop a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 10, 1970, Lunokhod 1 was carried aboard the Luna 17 lunar lander to the Sea of Rains where it explored the lunar surface for 11 months. Lunokhod 1 traveled seven miles (11 km) and explored the Mare Imbrium, or Sea of Showers.
Lunokhod 2 followed the Soviet Union's first lunar rover by riding aboard the Luna 21 lander, which was launched atop a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on January 8, 1973. The second rover landed on the Moon near a crater called LeMonier in the Sea of Serenity and then operated for about four months, traveling 26 miles (42 km). Like its Lunokhod 1 predecessor, it televised pictures of the lunar surface back to Earth and employed a suite of science instruments to observe solar X-rays, measure local magnetic fields and study mechanical properties of the lunar soil.
The Lunokhod is formed of a tub-like compartment with a large convex lid on eight independently powered wheels. Approximately the size of a Volkswagen Beetle - 4 ft. high (1.35 m) by 7 ft. long (2.15 m), with a wheelbase of 5 ft. (1.6 m) - it was equipped with antennas, television cameras, extendable devices to impact the lunar soil for density measurements and mechanical property tests, an X-ray spectrometer, an X-ray telescope, a cosmic ray detector and a laser device. The vehicle, which weighed 1,852 lbs. (840 kg), was powered by batteries that could be recharged during the lunar day by a solar cell array mounted on the underside of the lid. During the lunar nights, the lid could be closed so that an internal heat source could keep the internal components at operating temperature. It could travel 0.5 to 1.2 mph (.8 to 1.93 kph). Lunokhod 1 and 2 were remotely guided by teams of ground-based engineers (pictured at left).
The full-scale prototype unit on display at the Space Foundation was built by the Russian company that constructed the retired Lunokhods that still rest on the surface of the Moon.
Both Lunokhods remain on the surface of the Moon and often are targeted by distance-measuring lasers that are beamed from Earth to reflect off devices attached to each rover. While the location of Lunokhod 2 was known for years, the resting place of Lunokhod 1 was only recently identified in 2010 when images from high-resolution cameras on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter pinpointed the exact spot. Such distance measurements helps scientists track the Moon's slow drift away from Earth and better understand what's occurring inside the Moon's core (pictured at right, Lunokhod 1 on the Moon with inset of the actual rover).
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