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Luna - Exploring the Moon

Tyneside, UK
2023 Oct 2
Monday, Day 275

Curated by:

Selected Luna Missions:


A different view from Ian Ridpath

Summarised by Don P Mitchell

The Mission of Luna 3

Luna 3 was designed to operate more than the few hours of its predecessors, so a new design was needed involving solar cells to re-charge its chemical batteries during its flight around the Earth-Moon system.

Luna 3 photographLuna 3 was also equipped with a camera that pointed through an aperture at one end of the body. The design included protection for the lens in the form of a light baffle formed by the camera recess. A pair of hinged doors open for the photographic session.

In order to prevent it going into orbit around the Sun, it was launched with a lower velocity than Luna 1, hence its three-day, rather than two-day, journey to the Moon.

Luna 3's images were far from clear so, although they covered much of the 'back' of the Moon, their interpretation was difficult. Luna 3 produced this view of the Moon during a photographic session 1959 October 7 - three days after launch.

The large, nearly circular object at middle left is the Mare Crisium, which is visible from Earth. Another notable feature is the crater Tsiolkovsky towards the bottom right. Tsiolkovsky has a very dark floor but its central mountain is light in colour, making it stand out.

Luna 3 farside photographClearer views might have been obtained when Luna 3 was scheduled to transmit its images a second time from closer to the Earth. However, no transmission was received. It seem that Luna 3 had died.

Luna 3's photographic system used standard 35mm film onto which calibration marks had been printed prior to the mission. The marks helped scientists in interpreting the photo transmissions.

The photographic system used two lenses, with focal lengths of 200mm and 500mm. The shorter focal length was capable of fitting an image of the Moon onto a single 35mm frame of film. The photo above is a mosaic of pictures from the 500mm lens.

The film itself was specially formulated so that it could be processed in a high-temperature environment and so that the temperature itself was not important. After the film was dried, it passed in front of a television scanning system for images to be converted to a form in which could be transmitted by radio. At all times, the film was shielded from radiation in order to prevent it becoming fogged.

After its mission was finished, Luna 3 continued to orbit the Earth-Moon system under the combined gravitational influences of both bodies until 1960 March 29. On that day, its trajectory actually took it into the Earth's atmosphere at high speed, where it burned up as a result of friction with the air.

Luna 3 Statistics:

Launch Vehicle: Vostok
Launching Technique: Direct ascent
Mass: 278 kilogrammes
Length: 1.3 metres
Maximum Diameter: 1.2 metres

Date Time (UTC) Event
1959 Oct 4 00:43 Luna 3 (E-2A-1) spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome by Vostok rocket on a mission to fly past and photograph the Moon by way of direct ascent trajectory.
1959 Oct 6 14:16 Luna 3 passes 6,200 km from the Moon
1959 Oct 7 03:30 Luna 3 photographs the hidden side of the Moon from an altitude of 65,200 km altitude - its camera system takes a series of 29 photographs over a period 40 minutes, covering 70% of the surface - film is developed automatically aboard the spacecraft and is then scanned to allow radio transmission of the images
1959 Oct 10 Luna 3 reaches a distance of 480,000 kilometres from the Earth
1959 Oct 18 Luna 3 is back in the vicinity of Earth and transmits 17 of its photographs in facsimile format - a later attempt at re-transmission fails when signals are not received
1959 Oct 18 15:50 Luna 3 completes its first orbit of the Earth-Moon system
1960 Mar 29 Combined gravitational effects on the trajectory of Luna 3 cause it to re-enter the Earth atmosphere where it is destroyed by frictional heating. It has completed 11 revolutions around the center of the Earth-Moon system (the barycentre)
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