Fuzzy view of the Moon.

Russia's Luna 3 spacecraft returned the first views ever of the far side of the Moon. Credit: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Launch Date October 4, 1959 | 00:43:40 UT
Launch Site Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Russia | Launch Site 1 ​
Destination Earth's Moon
Type Flyby
Status Successful
Nation Soviet Union
Alternate Names Ye-2A (No. 1) , Lunik 3, Automatic Interplanetary Station
00021, 1959-008A

Goals

Take the first photographs of the far side of the Moon, a region never seen by human eyes. Luna 3 also carried micrometeroid and cosmic ray detectors.

Accomplishments

Although the spacecraft had heating and communication problems, Luna 3 took 29 photographs of the far side of the Moon with wide-angle and telephoto lenses. The spacecraft developed the film and then transmitted the images back to Earth, providing humanity with its first grainy views of the far side of the Moon. The photos showed far fewer signs of volcanic plains on the far side, prompting scientists to revise their theories of lunar evolution

First Close-up of the Moon from Luna 3
First Close-up of the Moon from Luna 3

Key Dates

Oct. 4, 1959 | 00:43:40 UT: Launch

Oct. 7, 1958: First Photographs of the Far Side of the Moon

In Depth

This spacecraft, of the Ye-2A class, was the first Soviet probe designed to take pictures of the far side of the Moon using the Yenisey-2 photographic-TV imaging system (replacing the Yenisey-1 used on the abandoned Ye-2 probe).

The TV system consisted of a 35-mm camera with two lenses of 200-mm (wide-angle) and 500-mm (high-resolution) focal lengths and a capacity to read up to 40 images. The probe was not meant to reach escape velocity. Instead, the launch vehicle inserted the spacecraft, called the Automatic Interplanetary Station in the Soviet press, into a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth at 30,000 x 291,000 miles (48,280 x 468,300 kilometers), sufficient to reach lunar distance.

During the coast to the Moon, the station experienced overheating problems and poor communications, but the vehicle eventually passed about 4,900 miles (7,900 kilometers) over the Moon's southern polar cap on Oct. 6 before climbing up over the Earth-Moon orbital plane.

When about 40,500 miles (65,200 kilometers) from the Moon, on Oct. 7, the probe’s cameras began taking the first of 29 pictures of the far side of the Moon. The spacecraft then automatically developed, fixed, and dried the exposed film, after which a special light beam of up to 1,000 lines per image scanned the film for transmission to Earth.

Radio antennas on Earth finally received the images the next day (after a few aborted attempts). Seventeen of the images were of usable quality and showed parts of the Moon never before seen by human eyes.

The spacecraft, renamed Luna 3 after 1963, photographed about 70 percent of the far side and found fewer mare areas on the far side, prompting scientists to revise their theories of lunar evolution.

Spacecraft

Launch Vehicle: 8K72 (no. I1-8)

Spacecraft Mass: 614 pounds (278.5 kilograms)

Spacecraft Instruments

  1. Yenisey-2 photographic-TV imaging system
  2. micrometeoroid detector
  3. cosmic-ray detector

Additional Resources

National Space Science Data Center Master Catalog: Luna 3

National Space Science Data Center: Soviet Lunar Missions

Selected References

Siddiqi, Asif A. Deep Space Chronicle: A Chronology of Deep Space and Planetary Probes 1958-2000, NASA, 2002.​

Solar System News