Luna 1 – The Satellite That Missed the Moon

On January 2nd 1959, at 16:41:21 UTC (22.41 local time) Luna 1 was launched from the Scientific-Research Test-Range No. 5 at Tyuratam, Kazakhstan (now named the Baikonur Cosmodrome). Launched aboard Vostok-L 8K72 three-stage launch vehicle, it was the fourth attempt at sending a payload at the moon by the Soviets. The first 3 were:

A museum replica of luna 1
A museum replica of luna 1

E-1 No.1 – or Luna 1958A by NASA. Launched 23 September 1958, 07:40. Booster disintegrated 92 seconds into flight due to Excessive vibration. Was the maiden flight of Luna 8K72 Rocket.

E-1 No.2 – or Luna 1958B by NASA. Launched 11 October 1958, 21:42. Booster disintegrated 104 seconds into flight due to Excessive vibration.

E-1 No.3 – or Luna 1958C by NASA. Launched 4 December 1958, 18:18. 245 seconds into flight, the core stage turboprops lost hydrogen peroxide lubricant, meaning it lost power and impacted downrange.

E-1 No.4 was only a partial failure, and therefore became known as Luna 1. Intended to impact the surface of the moon. Due to an error in timing the upper (third) stage burn time caused a near miss. After 34 hours of flight, at 3.45 UTC on january 4th the probe passed within 5,995km (3,725mi) of the lunar surface, which is about 1 and a half times the moon’s diameter. It was 320,000km from earth, travelling at 2.45km per second. It became the first man-made object to reach the escape velocity of earth. Then after missing the moon it was the first spacecraft to leave geocentric orbit and enter heliocentric orbit.

A replica of the luna 1 attached to the cone
A replica of the luna 1 attached to the cone

The Luna 1 module was hermetically sealed sphere weighing 361.3kg (795.9lb) with 5 antennae extended from one hemisphere; four whip antennas and one rigid antenna. The spacecraft contained a 19.993 MHz system which transmitted signals 50.9s long, a 183.6MHz transmitter for tracking purposes, and a 70.2MHz transmitter. The batteries on board were mercury-oxide and silver-zinc accumulators. Five sets of scientific equipment were externally mounted to the unit to study the journey including a geiger counter, scintillation counter, and micrometeorite detector, along with a Sodium experiment. The device on the end of the center rod protruding out the back is a magnetometer to measure the moon’s magnetic field.

The primary objectives of the mission were to:

  • Measure the temperature and pressure inside the vehicle.
  • Study the gas components of interplanetary matter and corpuscular radiation of the sun.
  • Measure the magnetic fields of the earth and the moon.
  • Study meteoric particles in space.
  • Study the distribution of heavy nuclear nuclei in primary cosmic radiation.
  • Study other properties of cosmic rays.
    Another schematic of Luna 1
A schematic of the Luna 1
A schematic of the Luna 1, unfortunately with russian annotations

at 00:56:20 UTC on january 3rd, 119,500km (74,300mi) from earth, the spacecraft released 1kg (2.2lb) of sodium gas. This formed a cloud behind it to serve as an artificial comet. The glowing orange trail of gas was visible over the ocean with the brightness of a sixth-magnitude star.  Mstislav Gnevyshev at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR near Kislovodsk took a photograph. This was designed as an experiment on the behaviour of gas in outer space, as well as functioning as a navigational aid helping ground control track the mission.

gas cloud of sulphur
Gas cloud photographed by Mstislav Gnevyshev at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR near Kislovodsk

Luna 1 was made of an aluminium-magnesium alloy, sealed with a special rubber. To protect the satellite, there was a cone to take the heat when passing through the dense layers of the atmosphere. When safely out of the atmosphere the cone was discarded, and the antennae unfold. On the same half as the antennas were two proton traps to find the gas components of interplanetary matter, and two piezoelectric pickups for the study of meteoric particles. The inside of the unit was filled with gas at 1.3 atmospheres, to ensure high pressurisation inside. Through the design, the high pressure allows for an air circulation within the unit. This circulation drew heat off equipment and instruments, transferring it to the shell, that then serves as a radiator.

The nose cone
A replica of the nose cone in an exhibition in 1969
How it fitted
A diagram showing how the nose and luna probe fitted


The Vostok-L 8K72 was a modified R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile.The R-7 rocket was designed by Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, known more commonly as The Chief Designer. The 8K72 version consisted of two core stages with four external boosters. The first stage and each of the boosters were powered by a four-nozzle RD-107 rocket engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen. Total thrust was approximately 1,100,775 pounds (4,896.49 kilonewtons). The second stage used a RD-0105 engine, producing 11,015 pounds of thrust (48.997 kilonewtons). The Luna 1 was propelled by a third stage which remained attached during the translunar coast phase of flight.

Vostok on Takeoff
Vostok on takeoff with the luna 1 on board

After Luna 1 passed the moon and continued on towards heliocentric orbit, it only had a certain amount of battery power left. Because it was meant to collide with the moon it had no need for recharging. On january 5th at approximately 07:00 the radio transmitter ceased to operate at a distance of 600,000km from earth. It is still in an orbit around the sun, somewhere between mars and earth. It completes one rotation in roughly 450 days. for those who understand the terms associated with orbital mechanics here are the numbers:

  • Semi major Axis: 1.146AU
  • Eccentricity: 0.14767
  • Perihelion: 0.9766AU
  • Apohelion: 1.315AU
  • inclination: 0.01 degrees
Luna1 Trajectory
Luna 1 Trajectory

Part of the plan was to hit the moon, unfortunately it didn’t achieve that. Part of the reason was to plant 2 Soviet pennants onto the moon. They were highly durable, made from titanium with thermoresistant polysiloxane enamals, that could reportedly survive an impact with venus. Usually a few are minted to give to VIP’s and top scientists. For them, it’s similar to planting a flag. one of the pennants on this flight was a thin metal strip with the inscription “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” on one side and the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and the inscription “January 1959 January” on the other. The other pennant was spherical, symbolising the moon, each face has the inscription “USSR, January 1959,” on one side and the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and the inscription “USSR” on the other.

luna 1 pennant 1

Luna 1 pennant 2
The pennants on the Luna 1, that are still inside the satellite to this day.

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