Above: Artist rendering of the Luna 2 spacecraft shortly before impacting the Moon’s surface.  Credit:  Nick Stevens.

September 13 marks a historic day in space travel when the Soviet ‘Luna 2’ spacecraft became the first man-made object to reach the lunar surface.  Fifty-five years ago, the craft landed – crash-landed actually – on the Moon near the craters Aristides, Archimedes, and Autolycus.  It’s mission?  To confirm the discovery of solar wind turned up by its predecessor, Luna 1.

Luna 2's impact site shown near the Apollo 15 landing site.

Luna 2’s impact site shown near the Apollo 15 landing site. Credit: George Tarsoudis.

Luna 2 shared the spherical design of its earlier relative, with protruding antennas and instruments like scintillation counters, Geiger counters, micrometeorite detectors, and a magnetometer.  The ball-shaped craft communicated with Earth via three radio transmitters tuned to different frequencies, and carried two Soviet pennants engraved with the USSR Coat of Arms and Cyrillic letters ‘CCCP’.  A copy of the pennants was gifted to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower by USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev just days after Luna 2’s successful lunar impact.

Pennants carried by Luna 2 to the Moon.

Pennants carried by Luna 2 to the Moon.

The pioneer spacecraft initiated a new era of space exploration by making contact with an extraterrestrial body, and paved the way to further analysis and exploration of the lunar surface.  Luna 2 also confirmed that there is virtually no magnetic field or radiation belt surrounding the Moon.