February Snapshots in Science History

This month’s discoveries focus on our solar system: from the first unmanned landing on the moon to modern day mapping of Mars. We’ve been able to answer many of our questions about the universe through research, but many more remain.

1966 – First unmanned landing on the moon

Just over 55 years ago, the first unmanned landing on the moon took place. The spacecraft was called the Soviet Luna 9. It launched on the 31st of January 1966 and arrived on the 3rd of February. It arrived 4 months before the US unmanned spacecraft ‘Surveyor 1’.

Luna 9 sent back nine images from the moon, including five panoramas showing the surface of the moon. This was a vital part of the mission as it was the first time that images had been sent to Earth from the surface of another planetary body.

Previously it was thought that the surface of the moon would not be able to support the weight of landers. However, Luna 9 was able to land without sinking into the dust, paving the way for future missions – both manned and unmanned! Luna 9 weighed approximately 1,580 kg; this is about the same weight as a medium sized car.

Luna 9 was part of a series of missions that unveiled new information about the moon, including Luna 3 which took pictures of the dark side of the moon that had never been observed until this point. The Soviets had attempted to land eleven spacecrafts on the surface of the moon before Luna 9.

The spacecraft arrived three years before the first manned mission to the moon, led by the US. Whilst it is widely considered that the US won the space race when man reached the moon, missions such as Luna 9 had a significant impact on humanities’ overall knowledge of the planetary body, revealing new information at a remarkable rate.

1930 – Discovery of Pluto

Clyde Tombaugh played a key role in the discovery of Pluto; he developed an interest in astronomy as a teenager. He began building his own telescopes in his early twenties. Tombaugh sent drawings of Mars and Jupiter he made using one of his home-built telescopes to the director of the Lowell Observatory. Vesto Slipher – the director- offered him a job to search for ‘Planet X’ after seeing his drawings.

Lowell – who the observatory was named after – had noticed strange occurrences in Neptune and Uranus’ orbits. He predicted that there was a further planet along in the solar system impacting their orbits. He searched for ‘Planet X’ for 11 years until his death in 1916.

Tombaugh was assigned the job of looking for ‘Planet X’ when he arrived at the observatory in early 1929. Nearly a year after he initially arrived, he observed a moving object – which would later be known as Pluto.

The process for finding Pluto involved using photographic plates. The telescope was used to produce these images of specific sections of the night sky where it was thought the planet might be located. In every region of the night sky that was investigated, two pictures would be taken a few days apart. So that any moving objects could be observed. Stars would be distant and would not have appeared to move in between the days where the photos were taken, however a planet would be able to be observed.

On 18th February 1930, he determined that there was a moving object which had moved 3 millimeteres on the plates between the different photos. This was determined to place it outside Neptune’s orbit where the planet was predicted to be. Whilst Pluto is no longer considered a planet as of 2006, it is still a significant discovery.

2002 – Surface of Mars mapped by Odyssey

NASA’s probe has been in orbit since 2001. It is the longest active spacecraft in orbit around a planet – not including spacecraft around Earth. Part of the Odyssey spacecraft’s mission is to look for future hazards which manned missions could face in the future. It is the first orbiter from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.

On 18th February 2020, it began mapping the surface of Mars using a thermal imaging camera to take. This camera both visible and infrared images. The first images were released on 1st March a few weeks later.

This mission is still ongoing with new data being added to the map of Mars. It will allow us to learn more about the surface of Mars, as well as providing new questions which will be investigated in the future. If humanity is able to live on Mars, it is essential that we have as much information about the surface as possible.

Image: Steve Jurvetson

Written by Louise Weightman.

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Louise is a fourth year physics with space science student. She is interested in bringing her love of science to a wider audience.


Louise is a fourth year physics with space science student. She is interested in bringing her love of science to a wider audience.

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