License article

Destination: the moon

There will be a new moon this weekend and, in the nights that follow, you will have an opportunity to see an enchanting lunar crescent hanging low in the western sky after sunset.

The ancients would have observed it enigmatically in the same way, having no idea what it was or how far away. They would have been astounded to understand its real nature and distance of 384,000 kilometres from us. If, in a time-travelling premonition, somebody could have suggested to them that their descendants would get there, a look of disbelief would have graced their faces.

Of course, we know this fact, but most people give the wrong answer when quizzed about whether the Americans or Russians made the first ''soft landing'' on lunar soil.

If you said the former, you would be in error, for it was the Russians who managed to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon's surface first, although, granted, it was unmanned.

It was the first time humans had deposited intact a craft from Earth on an alien world. This intrepid probe was Luna 9, and it then proceeded, in another first, to transmit photos back to Earth from the surface.

It was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on January 31, 1966, at a time when that country was still part of the Soviet Union. Some three days later, on February 3, it landed not far from the crater Reiner in the Ocean of Storms. This part of the moon becomes illuminated by the sun a day or two before full moon.

Luna 9 weighed about 100 kilograms and its dimensions were 2.5 metres by 1 metre. Over the course of three days, it transmitted 27 photographs of its lunar surroundings. Its batteries then ran flat and contact with Earth was lost on February 6.

Make no mistake, this was a great accomplishment.

It also indirectly helped the Americans and the Apollo 11 mission, by confirming that the moon's surface would support a lander.