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Lunar Orbiter 3



The Lunar Orbiter 3 spacecraft was designed primarily to photograph areas of the lunar surface for confirmation of safe landing sites for the Surveyor and Apollo missions. It was also equipped to collect selenodetic, radiation intensity, and micrometeoroid impact data. The spacecraft was placed in a cislunar trajectory and injected into an elliptical near-equatorial lunar orbit on 8 February at 21:54 UT. The orbit was 210.2 km x 1801.9 km with an inclination of 20.9 degrees and a period of 3 hours 25 minutes. After four days (25 orbits) of tracking the orbit was changed to 55 km x 1847 km. The spacecraft acquired photographic data from February 15 to 23, 1967, and readout occurred through March 2, 1967. The film advance mechanism showed erratic behavior during this period resulting in a decision to begin readout of the frames earlier than planned. The frames were read out successfully until 4 March when the film advance motor burned out, leaving about 25% of the frames on the takeup reel, unable to be read.

A total of 149 medium resolution and 477 high resolution frames were returned. The frames were of excellent quality with resolution down to 1 meter. Included was a frame of the Surveyor 1 landing site, permitting identification of the location of the spacecraft on the surface. Accurate data were acquired from all other experiments throughout the mission. The spacecraft was used for tracking purposes until it impacted the lunar surface on command at 14.3 degrees N latitude, 92.7 degrees W longitude (selenographic coordinates, some references give 14.6 N, 91.7 W or 14.3 N, 97.7 W) on October 9, 1967 at 10:27:11 UT.

Spacecraft and Subsystems

The main bus of the Lunar Orbiter had the general shape of a truncated cone, 1.65 meters tall and 1.5 meters in diameter at the base. The spacecraft was comprised of three decks supported by trusses and an arch. The equipment deck at the base of the craft held the battery, transponder, flight progammer, inertial reference unit (IRU), Canopus star tracker, command decoder, multiplex encoder, traveling wave tube amplifier (TWTA), and the photographic system. Four solar panels were mounted to extend out from this deck with a total span across of 3.72 meters. Also extending out from the base of the spacecraft were a high gain antenna on a 1.32 meter boom and a low gain antenna on a 2.08 meter boom. Above the equipment deck, the middle deck held the velocity control engine, propellant, oxidizer and pressurization tanks, Sun sensors, and micrometeoroid detectors. The third deck consisted of a heat shield to protect the spacecraft from the firing of the velocity control engine. The nozzle of the engine protruded through the center of the shield. Mounted on the perimeter of the top deck were four attitude control thrusters.

Power of 375 W was provided by the four solar arrays containing 10,856 n/p solar cells which would directly run the spacecraft and also charge the 12 amp-hr nickel-cadmium battery. The batteries were used during brief periods of occultation when no solar power was available. Propulsion for major maneuvers was provided by the gimballed velocity control engine, a hypergolic 100-pound-thrust Marquardt rocket motor. Three-axis stabilization and attitude control were provided by four one-lb nitrogen gas jets. Navigational knowledge was provided by five Sun sensors, Canopus star sensor, and the IRU equipped with internal gyros. Communications were via a 10 W transmitter and the directional 1 meter diameter high gain antenna for transmission of photographs and a 0.5 W transmitter and omnidirectional low gain antenna for other communications. Both antennas operated in S-band at 2295 MHz. Thermal control was maintained by a multilayer aluminized mylar and dacron thermal blanket which enshrouded the main bus, special paint, insulation, and small heaters.

Results of the Lunar Orbiter Program

The Lunar Orbiter program consisted of 5 Lunar Orbiters which returned photography of 99% of the surface of the Moon (near and far side) with resolution down to 1 meter. Altogether the Orbiters returned 2180 high resolution and 882 medium resolution frames. The micrometeoroid experiments recorded 22 impacts showing the average micrometeoroid flux near the Moon was about two orders of magnitude greater than in interplanetary space but slightly less than the near Earth environment. The radiation experiments confirmed that the design of Apollo hardware would protect the astronauts from average and greater-than-average short term exposure to solar particle events. The use of Lunar Orbiters for tracking to evaluate the Manned Space Flight Network tracking stations and Apollo Orbit Determination Program was successful, with three Lunar Orbiters (2, 3, and 5) being tracked simultaneously from August to October 1967. The Lunar Orbiters were all eventually commanded to crash on the Moon before their attitude control gas ran out so they would not present navigational or communications hazards to later Apollo flights. The Lunar Orbiter program was managed by NASA Langley Research Center and involved building and launching 5 spacecraft to the Moon at a total cost of $163 million.

Upper rendered image credit NASA/NSSDCA (public domain)

Alternate Names

  • 02666
  • Lunar Orbiter-C
  • LunarOrbiter3
  • Orbiter III
  • Orbiter-C

Facts in Brief

Launch Date: 1967-02-05
Launch Vehicle: Atlas-Agena D
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, United States
Mass: 385.6 kg
Nominal Power: 375 W

Funding Agency

  • NASA-Office of Space Science Applications (United States)


  • Planetary Science
  • Space Physics

Additional Information

Questions and comments about this spacecraft can be directed to: Dr. David R. Williams



NameRoleOriginal AffiliationE-mail

Selected References

  • Lunar Orbiter 3, Boeing Co., D2-100753, 1, 2 and 4, Seattle, Wa., Feb. 1968.
  • Lunar Orbiter project, mission 3 description, NASA-LRC, LOTD-113-0, Langley, VA, Jan. 1967.
  • Byers, B. K., Destination Moon: A history of the Lunar Orbiter program, NASA Headquarters, TM X-3487, Wash, DC, 1977.
  • Taback, I., Lunar orbiter- its mission and capability, NASA Langley Research Center, NASA-TM-X-51569, Hampton, VA, Jan. 1964.
  • Kosofsky, L. J., and F. El-Baz, The Moon as viewed by Lunar Orbiter, NASA, SP-200, Wash., D.C., 1970.

Other Lunar Orbiter Information/Data at NSSDCA

Image of Lunar Orbiter

Lunar Orbiter at the Air and Space Museum

Lunar Orbiter 1
Lunar Orbiter 2
Lunar Orbiter 3
Lunar Orbiter 4
Lunar Orbiter 5
Lunar Orbiter Home Page

Related Information/Data at NSSDCA

Lunar Exploration Home Page
Moon Home Page
Moon Fact Sheet

Image of Lunar orbiter

Other Sources of Lunar Orbiter Information/Data

USGS Lunar Orbiter Digitization Project
Destination Moon: A History of the Lunar Orbiter Program
Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas of the Moon
Unmanned Space Project Management - Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter

Images credit NASA/NSSDCA (public domain)

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