Luna 1, like three prior spacecraft in the Soviet Union's Ye-1 series, was intended to impact the Moon. The spacecraft carried instruments to study interplanetary matter, cosmic radiation and the magnetic fields of the Moon and Earth.
The spacecraft was the first to escape Earth's gravity, but the guidance system malfunctioned, causing it to miss the Moon. About 34 hours after launch, the spacecraft flew past the Moon at a distance of 3,976 miles (6,400 kilometers), and ground controllers lost contact with the spacecraft 62 hours after launch.
Jan. 2, 1959 | 16:41:21 UT: Launch
Jan. 3, 1959 | 00:00:57 UT: Lunar flyby
Along with its launch vehicle, the Luna 1 probe was originally referred to in the Soviet Press as Cosmic Rocket. The probe was retroactively renamed Luna 1 in 1963.
This Soviet spacecraft was the first human-made object to reach escape velocity (the speed and direction required to travel beyond Earth’s gravity). At 00:57 UT on Jan. 3, 1959, the attached upper stage of the rocket released one kilogram of sodium at about 70,000 miles (113,000 kilometers) from Earth and was photographed by astronomers on Earth. The sodium gas was an experiment to study the behavior of gas in space.
But Luna 1 did not follow its planned trajectory due to a problem in the guidance system. As a result, the probe failed to collide with its main target, the Moon. Luna 1 instead passed about 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) from the lunar surface about 34 hours after launch.
Ground controllers lost contact with Cosmic Rocket approximately 62 hours after launch, and the probe became the first spacecraft to enter orbit around the Sun.
Launch Vehicle: 8K72 (no. B1-6)
Spacecraft Mass: 797 pounds (361.3 kg) with upper stage
two gas-discharge counters
- Credit: NASA