The Very First Picture of the Far Side of the Moon, Taken 60 Years Ago

Six­ty years ago, mankind got its very first glimpse of the far side of the Moon, so called because it faces away from the Earth. (And as astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson have long tak­en pains to point out to Pink Floyd fans, it isn’t “dark.”) Tak­en by the Sovi­et Union, that first pho­to may not look like much today, espe­cial­ly com­pared to the high-res­o­lu­tion col­or images sent back from the sur­face itself by Chi­na’s Chang’e‑4 probe ear­li­er this year. But with the tech­nol­o­gy of the late 1950s, even the tech­nol­o­gy com­mand­ed by the Sovi­ets’ then-world-beat­ing space pro­gram, the fact that it was tak­en at all seems not far short of mirac­u­lous. How did they do it?

“This pho­to­graph was tak­en by the Sovi­et space­craft Luna 3, which was launched a month after the Luna 2 space­craft became the first man-made object to impact on the sur­face of the Moon,” explains astronomer Kevin Hain­line in a recent Twit­ter thread. “Luna 2 fol­lowed Luna 1, the first space­craft to escape a geo­syn­chro­nous Earth orbit.” Luna 3 was designed to take pho­tographs of the Moon, hard­ly an uncom­pli­cat­ed prospect: “To take pic­tures you have to be sta­ble on three-axes. You have to take the pho­tographs remote­ly. AND you have to some­how trans­fer those pic­tures back to Earth.” The first three-axis sta­bi­lized space­craft ever sent on a mis­sion, Luna 3 “had to use a lit­tle pho­to­cell to ori­ent towards the Moon so that now, while sta­bi­lized, it could take the pic­tures. Which it did. On PHOTOGRAPHIC FILM.”

Even those of us who took pic­tures on film for decades have start­ed to take for grant­ed the con­ve­nience of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy. But think back to all the has­sle of tra­di­tion­al pho­tog­ra­phy, then imag­ine mak­ing a robot car­ry them out in space. Once tak­en Luna 3’s pho­tos “were then moved to a lit­tle CHEMICAL PLANT to DEVELOP AND DRY THEM.” (In oth­er words, “Luna 3 had a lit­tle 1 Hour Pho­to inside.”) Then they con­tin­ued into “a device that shone a cath­ode ray tube, like in an old­er TV, through them, towards a device that record­ed the bright­ness and con­vert­ed this to an elec­tri­cal sig­nal.” You can read about what hap­pened then in more detail at Damn Inter­est­ing, where Alan Bel­lows describes how the space­craft sent “the light­ness and dark­ness infor­ma­tion line-by-line via fre­quen­cy-mod­u­lat­ed ana­log sig­nal — in essence, a fax sent over radio.”

Sovi­et Sci­en­tists could thus “retrieve one pho­to­graph­ic frame every 30 min­utes or so. Due to the dis­tance and weak sig­nal, the first images received con­tained noth­ing but sta­t­ic. In sub­se­quent attempts in the fol­low­ing few days, an indis­tinct, blotchy white disc began to resolve on the ther­mal paper print­outs at Sovi­et lis­ten­ing sta­tions.” As Luna 3’s pho­tos became clear­er, they revealed, as Hain­line puts it, that “the back­side of the moon was SO WEIRD AND DIFFERENT” — cov­ered in the craters, for exam­ple, which have become its visu­al sig­na­ture. For a mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent to this achieve­ment, we might look not just to Chang’e‑4 but to the image of a black hole cap­tured by the Event Hori­zon Tele­scope this past April — the one that led to an abun­dance of arti­cles like “In Defense of the Blur­ry Black Hole Pho­to” and “We Need to Admit That the Black Hole Pho­to Isn’t Very Good.” Astropho­tog­ra­phy has come a long way, but at least back in 1959 it did­n’t pro­duce quite so many takes.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mankind’s First Steps on the Moon: The Ultra High Res Pho­tos

8,400 Stun­ning High-Res Pho­tos From the Apol­lo Moon Mis­sions Are Now Online

How Sci­en­tists Col­orize Those Beau­ti­ful Space Pho­tos Tak­en By the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope

There’s a Tiny Art Muse­um on the Moon That Fea­tures the Art of Andy Warhol & Robert Rauschen­berg

The Glo­ri­ous Poster Art of the Sovi­et Space Pro­gram in Its Gold­en Age (1958–1963)

Won­der­ful­ly Kitschy Pro­pa­gan­da Posters Cham­pi­on the Chi­nese Space Pro­gram (1962–2003)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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