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Luna 16



Luna 16 was the first robotic probe to land on the Moon and return a sample to Earth and represented the first lunar sample return mission by the Soviet Union and the third overall, following the Apollo 11 and 12 missions. The spacecraft consisted of two attached stages, an ascent stage mounted on top of a descent stage. The descent stage was a cylindrical body with four protruding landing legs, fuel tanks, a landing radar, and a dual descent engine complex. A main descent engine was used to slow the craft until it reached a cutoff point which was determined by the onboard computer based on altitude and velocity. After cutoff a bank of lower thrust jets was used for the final landing. The descent stage also acted as a launch pad for the ascent stage. The ascent stage was a smaller cylinder with a rounded top. It carried a cylindrical hermetically sealed soil sample container inside a re-entry capsule. The spacecraft descent stage was equipped with a television camera, radiation and temperature monitors, telecommunications equipment, and an extendable arm with a drilling rig for the collection of a lunar soil sample.

Mission profile

The Luna 16 automatic station was launched toward the Moon from a preliminary Earth orbit and after one mid-course correction on 13 September it entered a circular 111 km lunar orbit on 17 September 1970. The lunar gravity was studied from this orbit, and then the spacecraft was fired into an elliptical orbit with a perilune of 15.1 km. The main braking engine was fired on 20 September, initiating the descent to the lunar surface. The main descent engine cut off at an altitude of 20 m and the landing jets cut off at 2 m height at a velocity less than 2.4 m/s, followed by vertical free-fall. At 05:18 UT, the spacecraft soft landed on the lunar surface in Mare Foecunditatis (the Sea of Fertility) as planned, at 0.5137 S, 56.3638 E, approximately 100 km west of Webb crater. This was the first landing made in the dark on the Moon, as the Sun had set about 60 hours earlier. According to the Bochum Radio Space Observatory in the Federal Republic of Germany, strong and good quality television pictures were returned by the spacecraft. However, such pictures were not made available to the U.S. by any sources so there is question as to the reliability of the Bochum report. The drill was deployed and penetrated to a depth of 35 cm before encountering hard rock or large fragments of rock. The column of regolith in the drill tube was then transferred to the soil sample container. After 26 hours and 25 minutes on the lunar surface, the ascent stage, with the hermetically sealed soil sample container, lifted off from the Moon carrying 101 grams of collected material at 07:43 UT on 21 September. The lower stage of Luna 16 remained on the lunar surface and continued transmission of lunar temperature and radiation data. The Luna 16 re-entry capsule returned directly to Earth without any mid-course corrections, made a ballistic entry into the Earth's atmosphere on 24 September and deployed parachutes. The capsule landed approximately 80 km SE of the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan at 03:26 UT.

Spacecraft image for illustrative purposes - not necessarily in the public domain.

Alternate Names

  • Lunik 16
  • 04527

Facts in Brief

Launch Date: 1970-09-12
Launch Vehicle: Proton Booster Plus Upper Stage and Escape Stages
Launch Site: Tyuratam (Baikonur Cosmodrome), U.S.S.R
Mass: 5600.0 kg

Funding Agency

  • Unknown (U.S.S.R)


  • Planetary Science
  • Space Physics

Additional Information

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



NameRoleOriginal AffiliationE-mail
Mr. Artem IvankovGeneral ContactLavochkin

Selected References

Vinogradov, A. P., Preliminary data on the lunar soil brought to earth by automatic probe 'Luna-16', J. Brit. Interplanet. Soc., 24, 475-495, Aug. 1971.

Luna 16 returns with lunar rock samples, Soviet Rept., 4, No. 8, Oct. 1970..

Harvey, B., The new Russian space programme from competition to collaboration, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, England, 1996.

Johnson, N. L., Handbook of soviet lunar and planetary exploration - volume 47 science and technology series, Amer. Astronau. Soc. Publ., 1979.

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