Orbital Focus - International Spaceflight Facts and Figures
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Luna - Exploring the Moon

Tyneside, UK
2023 Dec 2
Saturday, Day 336

Curated by:

Selected Luna Missions:


A different view from Ian Ridpath

Summarised by Don P Mitchell

The Mission of Luna 16

Luna 16 was the first automated vehicle to land on the Moon and return a sample of material to Earth. It was not, howeve, the first retrieval of lunar soil sample though. The Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 mission had already taken place by the time Luna 16 reached the Moon.

Luna 16 drawingLuna 16 is shown here sitting on the Moon's surface, having touched down from orbit.

At left, the cone-shaped antenna keeps communication with Earth while the drill arm occupies its rest position on the right. The soil sample was taken by rotating the drill head by one hundred and eighty degrees, lowering the drill arm to the surface and extracting a vertical core. On returning to the rest position, the sample was transferred to the return capsule through a self-sealing hatch and was then sent back to Earth.

Luna 15, an earlier Soviet vehicle had got as far as the Moon, charged with the same mission objective. It crashed on the surface during 1969 July while America's Apollo 11 piloted lunar landing Mission was under way. It was destroyed on impact.

Luna 16 ascent from MoonThe spacecraft consisted of two separate stages - an ascent stage to propel the sample container back to Earth, and a descent stage to provide course corrections, lunar orbit insertion and the landing manoeuvre. The descent stage had four legs to support the craft on the surface, fuel tanks, a landing radar, and a descent engine which was used for orbital adjustmen while in lunar orbit, and then to slow the craft for landing.

The descent stage also acted as a launch pad for the ascent stage. It was equipped with a television camera covering the drilling area, radiation and temperature monitors, and telecommunications equipment for use in the trans-lunar, lunar orbital and landing phases of the mission.

Luna 16 sample return capsuleThe ascent stage had a cylindrical housing radio equimpent, etc, with the spherical sample return container on top and a nest of propellant tanks below. In this artist's rendition, the return stage ascends from the lunar surface. A single main engine is assisted by four 'outrigger' engines to steer it. Inside the capsule is a cylindrical, hermetically sealed soil sample container.

The photograph on the right depicts the part of the spacecraft that was heat-shielded to survive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere in order to parachute down to the ground.

This particular photograph is of a test vehicle lying on its side in open ground after a test drop from an aircraft.

The two cylindrical balloons are a distinctive red colour to aid its visual location by recovery teams. Antennae for its radio beacon sprout from the top of the capsule and wide parachute straps trail across the ground towards the front left of the view.

Luna 16 Statistics:

Launch Vehicle: Proton (four stage version)
Launching Technique: Low orbit around Earth, translunar trajectory, then lunar orbit followed by landing
Mass: 1,880 kilogrammes on lunar surface
Length: 3.1 metres)
Maximum Diameter: 3.3 metres (including landing legs)

Date Time (UTC) Event
1970 Sep 12 13:25 Luna 16 (E-8-5-406) launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome by four-stage Proton rocket into 185 x 241 kilometre orbit around the Earth at 51.5 degrees inclination - its mission is to enter orbit around the Moon, then land and return a soil sample to Earth
1970 Sep 12 14:34 Final stage of Luna 16 launching rocket fired to place it into a trajectory towards the Moon
1970 Sep 13 Luna 16 rocket engine is used to correct its trajectory towards the Moon
1970 Sep 16 23:38 Luna 16 fires its rocket engine and and enters a 110 kilometre circular orbit around the Moon at 70 degrees inclination
1970 Sep 18 After firing its onboard rocket engine, Luna 16 orbit around the Moon is 15 x 110 kilometres at 70 degrees inclination
1970 Sep 19 After firing its onboard rocket engine, Luna 16 orbit around the Moon is 15 x 106 kilometres at 71 degrees inclination
1970 Sep 20 03:06 Luna 16 computer takes control of the landing sequence
1970 Sep 20 03:41 Luna 16 orbit takes it behind the Moon for the last time - radio communication is lost
1970 Sep 20 04:31 Luna 16 re-appears from behind the Moon and radio communication is re-established
1970 Sep 20 05:12 Luna 16 fires its rocket engine and begins its descent towards a landing on the Moon surface
1970 Sep 20 05:18 Luna 16 lands on the Moon at 0.68 degrees south, 56.30 degrees east in the Mare Foecundatis
1970 Sep 20 06:30 Luna 16 uses a hollow drill to collect a 35 centimetre long core sample of the lunar surface - the operation takes seven minutes and the sample weighs 101 grammes
1970 Sep 21 07:43 Luna 16 return stage fires its rocket motor and begins its journey back to Earth
1970 Sep 24 01:50 Luna 16 re-entry capsule separates from its spent rocket stage at a distance of 50,000 kilometres from Earth
1970 Sep 24 05:10 Luna 16 re-entry capsule hits the upper layers of the atmosphere
1970 Sep 24 05:14 Luna 16 re-entry capsule deploys its parachute
1970 Sep 24 05:26 Luna 16 re-entry capsule touches down 80 kilometres south-east of Dzhezhkazgan
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