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1959: Soviets launch rocket at the Moon

A massive Russian rocket, carrying 860lb (391kg) of scientific instruments, has been successfully launched at the Moon.

Latest reports say the rocket, Lunik II, is on course to reach its destination at 2201BST tomorrow.

This is the second rocket launched by Russia towards the Moon. The first was on 2 January. It missed its target and continued out into space.

Yellow sodium cloud

A multistage rocket was used for the launch, which had to achieve a speed of seven miles per second (11.3km) to escape the Earth's gravitational pull.

Lunik II is carrying equipment to measure, among other things, the magnetic fields of the Earth and the Moon and the belts of radiation surrounding the earth.

The craft's journey was briefly visible from Earth at 1940 BST this evening when it emitted a bright yellow sodium cloud intended to look like an artificial comet.

Although skies were overcast in Moscow, at least two Russian observatories in the Caucasus and in Uzbekistan in Central Asia were able to photograph the cloud.

The flare was also visible at Leiston in Suffolk.

The Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev is due in Washington on Tuesday. There is speculation this latest lunar expedition has been deliberately timed to coincide with the trip.

The scientific instruments have been contained in a gas-filled sphere on the front of the craft. It has been hermetically sealed to prevent any of the contents contaminating the Moon's atmosphere. There are also pennants with the Communist Government's hammer and sickle emblem and the inscription, September 1959, inside.

Moscow scientists say the actual landing 236,875 miles (381,131km) away cannot possibly be seen from Earth but the break-off in radio transmission will indicate the craft has arrived at its destination.

The landing is meant to take place among the three large depressions on the Moon's surface, known as the seas of Serenity, Tranquillity and Vapours.

In Context
Lunik II hit the Moon 36 hours later - the first craft from Earth to do so.

The official time of impact was 2202 and 24 seconds the following day (2402 Moscow time), one minute and 24 seconds later than planned.

The radio transmitters in the container ceased to function at the moment of impact.

At the Moscow planetarium, thousands of people queued to take turns in looking through 15 telescopes set up in the grounds.

Professor Alexander Topchiev, deputy chairman of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, denied the Soviet Union would be making any territorial claim on the Moon as a result of the Lunik II landing.

He said the success of the mission had brought the prospect of a manned flight to the Moon closer although he admitted it would still be "extremely difficult".

On 12 April 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

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