Sunday, May 7, 2017

50 Years Ago: Surveyor 3 on the Moon

Photo of Surveyor 3 actually on the Moon, as taken by astronauts of Apollo 12 years later.

Fifty years ago, NASA continued its preparations for the Apollo program by landing another probe on the lunar surface. This was the third in the Surveyor series, built by Hughes Aircraft, and principally tasked with getting photos of the surface, and sampling the soil. This was the first space probe to include an extendable scoop to bring lunar dust to a sampling experiment on the lander. Surveyor 3 lifted off from Cape Kennedy from launch complex LC-36B on April 17. 

An Atlas-Centaur booster used to place the Surveyor spacecraft on the Moon. This is the one from Surveyor-1. 

Surveyor 3 touched down on April 20, 1967, in the Mare Cognitum part of Oceanus Procellarum. It had a hard landing because the descent radar incorrectly calculated the altitude and shut the engine down early. It then bounced several times, as high as 10-meters on one bounce, eventually soft-landing and staying upright. Over the short time of its mission it took over 6,000 images to send to excited scientists on Earth.

One of the panorama-series of images taken by Surveyor 3.
The sampling arm on the spaceprobe made four short trenches in the soil. Each scoop would bring the sample up to a camera that would then take close pictures of the soil appearance and then transmit the images back to Earth.
Surveyor 3 is the most famous of the seven Surveyor missions, because of what happened during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. Astronauts from Apollo 12 landed very close to the spacecraft (on purpose!) and retrieved several pieces for return to Earth and analysis. 

The camera from Surveyor 3, currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Center in Washington, D.C.

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