Lunokhod to the Rescue!

TL;DR

  1. Lunokhod to the rescue!
  2. Titan's nuclear Dragonfly quadcopter

Today I learned

If you haven't watched the HBO show Chernobyl, I HIGHLY recommend it, not just because I'm a huge space nerd intrigued by all things Soviet and science, but because I was amazed to learn that the Soviet Lunokhod moon rovers were referenced in the radioactive cleanup!

My investment banking job is sometimes rough, but boy I do not envy this man's task one bit!! | Credit: HBO

The Lunokhod (Russian: Луноход,"Moonwalker") program lasted from 1969-1977 and put the first remote controlled rovers on the surface on another world, successfully landing Lunokhod 1 (1970) at the Sea of Rains and Lunokhod 2 (1973) at the Le Monnier crater. The two rovers performed extensive soil tests and returned detailed imagery of the surface, and Lunokhod 2 traveled an astonishing 39km across the lunar surface, second in extraterrestrial distance only to Opportunity on Mars! They were launched on Proton-K rockets and were originally designed to support the Soviet manned lunar landings, but with Apollo's success the Soviet lunar programs were scaled back and cancelled. There was even a Lunokhod 3 that was completely built and ready to go, but there weren't enough funds to support another launch vehicle and mission. So sad!

Artist's impression of Lunokhod on the moon | Image credit: Nick Stephens Graphics 

Years later in 1986, the Chernobyl disaster spewed radioactive waste all over the nuclear power plant and into the atmosphere. The nuclear material on the reactor rooftop in particular needed to be cleared ASAP, but the East German bulldozers that got sent over were too heavy, and human laborers were inefficient because they could only be exposed to the devastating radiation for 90 second intervals (they probably still got cancer and died horrible deaths - epic video from the HBO miniseries here). So the old Lunokhod engineers got called out of retirement to build radiation hardened rovers based off the Lunokhod design, and within weeks two rovers (called STR-1) were trudging about the rooftop clearing debris. Though the radiation levels were so intense that even STR-1 eventually failed and human laborers had to be called back, they definitely saved countless lives

HBO's portrayal of the Lunokhod-derived rovers on the Chernobyl rooftop vs. the real thing. Not bad Hollywood!!

Not until 1997 did another extraterrestrial rover, the American Mars Pathfinder mission carrying the Sojourner rover, get launched. All in all, pretty impressive for a rugged Soviet design!


Current events

NASA made a huge announcement this week - it's sending a quadcopter drone to Saturn's largest moon, Titan! Named Dragonfly, it will be the first vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) rotorcraft ever launched in space, and if successful over its two year planned primary mission it will fly hundreds of kilometers, greater than the cumulative distance traveled by every lunar and Martian rover to date!

NASA's Dragonfly mission concept illustration

Dragonfly will use a rechargeable battery powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which is just a big name for a device that uses the heat from radioactive decay to generate electricity. Titan is the perfect world for an extraterrestrial helicopter due to its thick atmosphere (1.5x Earth's), low gravity (13.8% of Earth's), and low winds. Furthermore, Titan is a huge scientific focus for astrobiologists since its thick nitrogen/methane atmosphere (the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere) is eerily similar to primordial Earth, potentially holding clues to the origin of life on our planet. And with vast oceans of liquid methane, Titan is the only world in the solar system besides Earth with standing liquid on its surface

Left: Infographic of Titan's many fascinating layers | Right: Titan's surface as imaged by the Huygens lander in 2005

This won't be the first time we've visited Titan; NASA's Cassini mission launched in 1997 and arrived at Titan in 2004, deploying the Huygens lander to the surface in the first-ever landing in the outer solar system. Cassini was a wildly successful mission, orbiting Saturn until 2017 and opening up the wonders of Saturn for all humanity. Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and arrive at Saturn in 2034 as the fourth mission in NASA's New Frontiers program, after New Horizons in 2006 (Pluto flyby), Juno in 2011 (Jupiter orbiter), and OSIRIS-REx in 2016 (asteroid sample return). Mark your calendars!




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