Surveyor 3 sent to explore moon, April 17, 1967
When landing, the craft’s radar was confused by highly reflective rocks on the moon. This caused the lander to bounce on the lunar surface twice, once to about 35 feet and once to about 11 feet. On the third impact with the surface Surveyor 3 settled down to a soft landing as intended.
The mission was the first one to carry a surface-soil sampling-scoop. It was mounted on an electric-motor-driven arm and was used to dig four trenches in the lunar soil. (Note the arm in the NASA photo, left)
When the first lunar nightfall came on May 3, 1967, Surveyor 3’s solar panels stopped producing electricity and the craft shutdown. Some 336 hours later at the next lunar dawn, Surveyor 3 could not be reactivated, damaged by the extremely cold temperatures it had experienced. In contrast, Surveyor 1 had been reactivated twice after lunar nights.
Two-and-half years after Surveyor 3’s last operation, NASA’s Apollo 12 lunar module landed near the craft on November 19, 1969. Its astronauts examined Surveyor 3 and brought back about 10 kg of parts to the Earth, including its TV camera, which is now on permanent display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The camera had transmitted 6,315 TV images to the Earth while it was operational.
While it is debated, some claim a common type of bacterium called streptococcus mitis accidentally contaminated the craft’s camera prior to launch and that the bacteria survived dormant in the harsh lunar environment, undetected until Apollo 12 brought the camera back to the Earth. The claim led NASA to adopt strict abiotic procedures for space probes to prevent contamination of Mars and other astronomical bodies that are suspected of having conditions possibly suitable for life.
Indeed, along that thinking, the Galileo space probe was intentionally crashed into Jupiter and destroyed to avoid the possibility of contaminating the Jovian moon Europa with bacteria from Earth. The Surveyor 3 claims of surviving bacteria are often challenged.
- Apollo 12 hit by lightning at launch, November 14, 1969
- Lunar Orbiter 1 takes 1st photo of Earth from moon orbit, August 23, 1966
- NASA: Revealing the unknown to benefit all humankind
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Editor's note: This article was originally posted on April 17, 2013 and edited on April 17, 2017.