Charted: Extraterrestrial Driving Records

NASA has just released this cute chart depicting the various distances traveled by wheeled machines on other worlds (click to enlarge).

The comparison was put out in honor of the agency’s Opportunity rover, which has been on Mars since 2004, beating NASA’s previous distance record-holder, the Apollo 17 moon buggy. During its nine years of operations, Opportunity has roved 35.760 kilometers, edging out the Apollo astronaut’s 35.744-kilometer drive.

The champion for driving on another surface still goes to the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 37 kilometers across the moon in 1973. Of course, Opportunity still has the *ahem* opportunity to overtake the international record holder since it’s continuing to rove around the rim of Endeavour crater on Mars. The little robot has been exploring that area since 2011 and has uncovered some of the most unambiguous evidence for water on ancient Mars. Though NASA’s celebrated Curiosity rover has only gone less than one kilometer since landing in August, it has nuclear batteries that could last 14 years at minimum — ample time to beat all competitors.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Scientists Bounce Laser Beams Off Old Soviet Moon Rover

Scientists have successfully bounced a laser off the Soviet Union’s old Lunokhod 1 rover, which trekked across the moon’s landscape more than four decades ago.

Lunokhod 1 was the first remote-controlled rover ever to land on another celestial body. The wheeled vehicle was carried to the lunar surface by a spacecraft called Luna 17, touching down in the Sea of Rains on Nov. 17, 1970.

Among its instruments, the rover toted a French-built laser retroreflector consisting of 14 corner cubes that can reflect laser light beamed from Earth. 

Attempts to contact the rover after the lunar night that began on Sept. 14, 1971, were unsuccessful, apparently due to a component failure on the rover. Lunokhod 1’s days of rambling around the moon formally ended on Oct. 4, 1971, after 11 lunar day-night cycles (322 Earth days).

The historical difficulty of ranging on Lunokhod 1 may have been due to a number of factors. The reflector may have been dusty, or its cover could have closed. Or the rover may not have been parked in view of Earth.

In the end, however, “it was more a problem of lack of confidence than to a technical difficulty,” Torre said.

Poor weather conditions prevented the scientists from getting a good determination of the Lunokhod 1 reflector’s efficiency. Still, the results have buoyed the interest of Earth-based scientists to continue beaming their lasers at the long-dead rover.

A retroreflector array was also left on the moon by the landing crew of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969, while two more retroreflector arrays were set up by Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 moonwalkers.

The final end-of-mission location of Lunokhod 1 was uncertain until 2010. But thanks to images snapped by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), both the Luna 17 lander and Lunokhod 1 were spotted.

Lunokhod 1 came to its final stop on a site situated around 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) north of its point of landing.

The success last month by the Grasse station was not the first laser ranging effort targeting the “lost” Lunokhod 1 reflector.

In April 2010, specialists at the Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation (APOLLO) in southern New Mexico used the LRO images to first pinpoint the locale of Lunokhod 1, closely enough for laser range measurements.

Surprisingly, the APOLLO researchers reported that the craft’s retroreflector was returning much more light than other reflectors on the moon.

Lunar laser ranging has been made possible by combining advances in laser technology, data processing and precision timing via atomic clocks, according to the International Laser Ranging Service, a service of the International Association of Geodesy.

Lunar laser ranging uses short-pulse lasers and state-of-the-art optical receivers and timing electronics to measure how long it takes light beamed from ground stations to travel to retroreflector arrays on the moon and back again.

It takes just two and a half seconds for light to make this roundtrip trek, requiring use of an atomic clock.

Because the reflectors on the moon are relatively small and a laser beam naturally loses its intensity with distance, only a tiny fraction of the signal makes it back. However, the information is sufficient for precise calculation of the Earth and moon’s movement: speed of rotation, axial variation and orbital deviation (taking into account, of course, the influence of other celestial bodies such as the sun).



Until the recent Mars rovers, Lunokhod 1 held the robotic rover endurance record: it landed on the Moon at Mare Imbrium in November of 1970 and lasted 400 days, until September of 1971.

The LRO images above show the rover sitting in Mare Imbrium, as well as the tracks it made around the Russian Luna 17 lander.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) continues to take images of old lander sites. Here’s the Soviet rover Lunokhod 1 and its tracks. It was the first remote-controlled robot to land on another world: the Moon, in Mare Imbrium, on November 17, 1970. According to Wikipedia, this mission lasted 322 Earth days, with the rover travelling 10.5 km and returning more than 20,000 TV images and 206 panoramas.

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

  “Three hours after reaching the Moon aboard the latest unmanned Russian Moon probe, Luna 17, Lunokhod 1 lumbered down one of two ramps extended by the mother ship and moved forward … thus taking the first giant step for robotkind on another celestial body.” - TIME Magazine, 1970

On November 17th, 1970, the Soviet Union made history when Lunokhod 1 landed on the Moon. Lunokhod, meaning “moon walker” in Russian, became the first remote controlled rover to operate on another world, and in doing so, traveled 10,540 meters (6.55 miles) before losing radio contact with mission controllers.

Being carried by the Luna 17 spacecraft, Lunokhod 1 descended onto the lunar surface via two ramps at 06:28 UT, soon followed by a remote diagnostics check to ensure communications between the rover and Earth. Outliving it’s expected span of operation by nearly 8 months, Lunokhod 1 was able to capture more than 20,000 TV images and 206 high-resolution panoramic images of a region known as Sea of Rains, culminating with 500 soil samples. 

Losing contact with mission controllers on September 14th, 1971, the location of Lunokhod 1 remained uncertain until 2010, when a photograph taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter clearly showed both the rover and the lander. Months later, experiments with laser ranging were conducted at the Apache Point Observatory to track the orbit of the moon via reflectors attached to Lunokhod 1. Tom Murphy, who lead the research team, explained the process of lunar laser ranging in a 2010 NASA Science News article.

“Our telescope shoots out laser pulses that travel from Earth to the Moon and ping the reflectors. Because these are all ‘corner-cube reflectors,’ they send the pulse straight back where it came from. We scoop up as many of the returning photons as possible.”

By studying the total travel time between the Earth and the Moon over an extended period of months, scientists are able to outline the Moon’s orbit with pinpoint accuracy. With the rediscovery of the Lunokhod 1 laser reflectors, Tom Murphy and his team at the Apache Point Observatory plan to test Einstein’s theory of gravity, which states that the mass and energy of the Sun curves space itself, causing the planets to drift inward.    

1. Luna - Exploring the Moon
2. Old Moon Rover Beams Surprising Laser Flashes to Earth

On November 17, 1970 the Soviet Luna 17 spacecraft landed the first roving remote-controlled robot on the Moon. Known as Lunokhod 1, it weighed just under 2,000 pounds and was designed to operate for 90 days while guided in real-time by a five person team at the Deep Space Center near Moscow

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China's first moon rover sets record for longest stay
Jinan, China (XNA) Nov 01, 2015
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China’s first lunar rover, Yutu, has been operating on the moon for almost two years, setting the record for the longest stay by a rover, according to a Chinese lunar probe scientist. Yutu was deployed and landed on the moon via China’s Chang'e-3 lunar probe in 2013, staying longer than the Soviet Union’s 1970 moon rover Lunokhod 1, which spent 11 months on the moon. Its operations h
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