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Thursday, January 26, 2012

50 Years Ago Today - Ranger 3 Misses the Moon

Artist idea of Ranger probe traveling through space. This replica of Ranger was used at the Parade of Progress Show in Cleveland Ohio in 1964. I would love to find out where this is today. Perhaps the Smithsonian?

Fifty years ago on January 26, 1962, NASA launched an Atlas-Agena B rocket from Cape Canaveral. Lifted beyond Earth orbit, Ranger 3 was set on course to begin our epic reconnaissance of the Moon. On board were not only experiments to test the functionality of the Ranger series of probes, but also a Seismometer capsule which would roughly land and begin studying moonquakes. The craft itself was intended to crash into the surface of the Moon, as engineers had not yet devised a way to softly land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. A camera would send images of the lunar surface back to Earth before the expected crash, and instruments would make radar reflections of the surface, measure the altitude from the surface, and study gamma rays while in space.

Side view or Ranger 3.

Power for the craft was provided by two solar panel wings providing energy to a 1000-watt capacity battery. A large communications antenna was attached to the base. In a way, Ranger 3 appeared much as most of our satellites of the period would look.

Atlas-Agena B lifts off from Cape Canaveral.

The Ranger 3 mission did not go as planned (surprise!). The booster guidance system suffered a malfunction which caused the spacecraft to speed up beyond the planned acceleration. The mid course correction failed, and the spacecraft was unable to relay data and information clearly. Ranger 3 missed the moon by about 22,000 miles. Eventually, some data was received that helped engineers fine-tune the design for the next mission. Ranger 3 itself kept on flying- it eventually began to orbit the Sun, and remains out there to this day.

Science fiction fans may remember that the TV series "Buck Rogers" used a space-shuttle derived design as Buck's spaceship, which was named "Ranger-3."
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