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Before there was a rover named Perseverance, there was a series of missions that earned that name in their own right.

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[♪ INTRO].

Sometimes, you’re just too stubborn to quit. In spaceflight, perseverance is a trait so highly valued, we’ve named rovers after it.

But Luna 16 is a mission that had a claim to the name decades before Perseverance would land on Mars. Its goal was the Moon, and its attempts to get there would eventually pay off. ... Eventually.

In the late 60s through the early 70s, the space race was at its height, and the Moon was on everyone’s mind. The goals were not only to land astronauts there, but to explore and understand it as well. Enter the Luna missions, a Soviet program to retrieve lunar regolith, which is a fancy way of saying space dirt.

And it would get there and back entirely robotically, with no cosmonauts on board. The regolith Luna 16 would scoop up would tell us so much about the moon, like how old the lunar surface was, how did it form, was it made of cheese. Now, as you’d imagine, this was far from a simple task.

That kind of mission is tricky today, and it had not been done yet back in the 1960s. And it did not work the first time. Or the second.

In fact, the first five launches ended in failure. The Soviets’ first attempt at a sample return mission launched and failed on the 14th of June 1969. Now, their space program was not in the habit of releasing details of failed missions back then, so we don’t have names for several of these missions.

Just dates, and names tentatively recovered or assigned by NASA. However, Luna 15, a named mission, was ready to go just one month later, on July 13th! Now this one was a little more successful.

It got into orbit around Earth at least, and all the way to the Moon. Unfortunately, Luna 15 failed during descent to the lunar surface. Though it did end up landing at the same time Apollo 11 was on the surface.

And by landing, I mean crashing. Seriously, the Space Race saw a lot of traffic. Now, if you’re thinking that because 16 is the number after 15 we might be, ya know, almost there… we are not.

The third and fourth attempts were named Kosmos 300 and Kosmos 305, launching on the 23rd of September 1969 and the 22nd of October 1969, respectively. Both of these made it to low Earth orbit, but never managed to actually leave it, and both of them ended up returning to Earth once their orbit decayed after a few days. Now at this point, we get a bit more of a gap in attempts.

The Soviet space program had been cranking out these missions almost monthly, so it’s easy to imagine that so many failures were probably becoming demoralizing. Regardless, the engineers put their noses to the grindstone for the rest of the year, and by February 1970, they had another attempt. Which… didn’t get a name, and failed to achieve Earth orbit.

Five whole missions launched and not a single moon sample to show for it. However, victory was just around the corner, in the form of Luna 16, launched in September 1970. The spacecraft was constructed to have two stages: a descent stage on the bottom for getting to the lunar surface, which would then act as a launch pad for the upper, ascent stage to come back.

At around 3.96 meters tall, it weighed almost six tonnes when fully fueled, and almost two unfueled. Among the tech on board was a television camera, radiation and temperature monitors, and telecommunications equipment. Most importantly, it had a 90 cm extendable arm with a drilling rig for digging up and returning that precious lunar sample.

The sample that Luna 16 took from its landing site in the Sea Of Fertility ended up being about 101 grams of regolith. The drill could only get about 35 centimeters into the loose surface before it was stopped by dense rocks, but 101 grams is a pretty respectable haul. After stowing the sample away in a hermetically sealed soil sample container,.

Luna made its successful journey home after just 26 hours and 25 minutes on the lunar surface. Later analysis of that sample showed that it was pretty similar to the samples collected by Apollo 11, though levels of titanium and zirconium oxide were a little different. And these samples are still being pored over today!

Modern imaging analysis of the Luna 16 samples from 2021 show all sorts of materials are present in the grains collected. Things like olivine, which can help us understand how the Moon weathers, and glass, which could come in handy as a building material. Over the years, lunar samples helped us understand the moon’s history and how it formed.

And now, in a new space-faring age, they also help us plan for the future, and help us understand how we might use regolith as a building material during longer-term human moon missions. So the six attempts were worth it after all. Right now, decades in the future, the knowledge Luna 16 provided is equipping us to handle even bigger, even cooler challenges in space exploration that are yet to come.

And it proves that “perseverance” is the most important word in spaceflight. Luna 16 brought home the Moon, and now you can bring home Luna 16. That’s because this bubbly boi is our Pin of the Month for September.

That means it’s available for preorder all month, and then, when the month ends, we will close orders and start shipping. After that, we will not make this pin ever again. But we will make another great pin next month, so tune back in for that! [♪ OUTRO].