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1970: Soviet probe collects moon rock
The Russian space probe, Luna 16, has landed on the Moon to collect samples from its surface.

It is the first time an unmanned probe has been used to bring objects back to Earth from space.

The probe landed at the Sea of Fertility, a region which has not yet been explored.

It is collecting samples of rock and dust using an electric drill at the end of a mechanical extendable arm to cut small cores from just under the topsoil.

In addition to the drills, the probe is equipped with a television camera.

Mission statement

The description of the mission, provided by the Soviet official news agency, Tass, reveals Soviet scientists have developed a highly advanced apparatus.

The news agency said the probe would "explore the moon and near-moon space".

The probe is expected to spend about 26 hours on the surface of the Moon before Soviet scientists send the signal for it to return to Earth.

It is the first time an attempt has been made to fire a spacecraft back to Earth by remote control.

Luna 16 is the second Soviet attempt to return samples from the Moon: the first, Luna 15, provoked widespread controversy when it was launched just three days before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.

The mission was a failure and the probe crashed into the Moon just a few hours after Neil Armstrong stepped on to the Sea of Tranquillity.


The successful landing of Luna 16 has revived the debate over the need to send men to the Moon in order to explore its surface.

The Soviet Union has long argued that many complicated space experiments can be carried out with automatic devices, without risking the lives of men.

One Soviet scientist writing in the Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, commented that unmanned space probes cost between one-twentieth and one-fiftieth of the equivalent manned flights.

However, America argues that trained scientists sent as astronauts to the Moon can collect larger and better selected samples than a probe.

The next manned mission, Apollo 14, is due to take off next February.

The launch was postponed for six months for modifications following the near-disastrous explosion on board Apollo 13 in April.

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Luna 16
Luna 16 can grasp sample tubes and drill into the surface (picture: Nasa)

In Context
Luna 16 successfully returned to Earth on 24 September, bringing back about 100g of lunar soil and rock.

The probe left an experimental station on the surface of the Moon which continued to send back data to Earth.

The next Russian moon probe, Luna 17, was launched in November 1970 and carried the first rover, Lunokhod, which roamed across the Moon's surface for over a week taking measurements and samples.

There were several Luna missions, many of which made history.

Luna 9 was the first to make a controlled landing on the Moon's surface, while Luna 10 was the first to go into orbit around the Moon.

The debate over the need for expensive manned space missions continued.

Budget constraints brought the first phase of American lunar exploration to an end in 1972.

The Soviet Union, however, continued to send probes to explore the Moon until 1976.

In September 2005 the US space agency, NASA, announced plans to send four astronauts to the Moon by 2020 as part of a plan to send a manned mission to Mars.

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