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1965: Millions watch space probe crash into Moon

A ground-breaking 15-minute live broadcast has shown ordinary Americans what it feels like to be a space probe hurtling to destruction on the Moon.

The extraordinary pictures from the Ranger 9 moon lander were beamed out directly from the spacecraft's internal cameras.

They were switched on at about 0850 local time (1350 GMT) as the probe fell from a height of 1,468 miles (2,363 km) towards the Moon's surface.

Television viewers were then taken on a dizzying journey as Ranger 9 crashed headlong into the pock-marked crater Alphonsus, near the centre of the Moon's face.

Kamikaze missions

Ranger 9 was the last of the moon probes sent on so-called kamikaze missions in which they are deliberately aimed at the surface of the Moon to take as many images as possible before being destroyed on impact.

The previous two, Rangers 7 and 8, sent back thousands of photographs of the Moon before hitting its surface.

But Ranger 9 was equipped to convert its signals into a form suitable for showing on domestic television, and brought images of the Moon into ordinary homes.

Viewers of the astonishing live broadcast saw a series of pictures, starting with three flat craters - Ptolemaeus, 85 miles (137 km) in diameter, Alphonsus, 50 miles (80 km) across, and Albategnius, 60 miles (96 km) wide.

As the spacecraft drew closer to the Moon's surface, the area photographed became large in scale and focussed on the crater Alphonsus.

Large roads

At five minutes from impact, 400 miles (644 km) from the surface, pronounced channels looking like large roads appeared.

At 177 miles (285 km) away, the surface appeared pockmarked and rough, like a close-up of human skin.

Pictures remained sharp and clear as little as a third of a mile (540 metres) from the surface, and then the screen suddenly went black as the probe landed.

The final picture was made when the spacecraft was just two-tenths of a second from impact, and scientists hope it will reveal new details about the Moon's crust.

Scientists will now analyse the pictures, along with over 11,000 images from Rangers 7 and 8.

The successful mission comes just 24 hours after the launch of Gemini III, the second stage in America's race to land a man on the Moon.

The spacecraft has two astronauts on board - the first time America has sent two astronauts into space at the same time - and will orbit the Earth three times before coming down to land.

In Context
The Ranger 9 moon lander pictures temporarily pushed the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.

The pictures showed that the Moon's surface was capable of bearing the weight of a manned spacecraft - a key issue for Nasa scientists at the time.

It also showed that although choosing a landing site among the craters and mountain ranges would be difficult, it would not be impossible.

The pictures were used in developing the Surveyor lunar landers, the first of which were launched in 1966.

However, they were beaten to it by the USSR's Luna 9 lander, which in February 1966 sent back the first pictures from the surface of the Moon.

Surveyor 1 landed four months later.

When the United States landed Neil Armstrong on the moon on 21 July 1969, he stepped down in the area known as the Sea of Tranquillity - chosen as a likely landing spot from photographs taken by Ranger 8.


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