Ranger program

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The Ranger program was a series of unmanned space missions by the United States in the 1960s whose objective was to obtain the first close-up images of the surface of the Moon. The Ranger spacecraft were designed to impact the lunar surface, returning imagery until they were destroyed upon impact. A series of mishaps, however, led to the failure of the first six flights beginning in 1961 until Ranger 7 successfully returned images in July 1964, followed by two more successful missions.

Ranger was originally designed, beginning in 1959, in three distinct phases, called "blocks". Each block had different mission objectives and progressively more advanced system design. The JPL mission designers planned multiple launches in each block, to maximize the engineering experience and scientific value of the mission and to assure at least one successful flight. Total research, development, launch, and support costs for the Ranger series of spacecraft (Rangers 1 through 9) was approximately $170 million.


The Ranger spacecraft

Each Ranger spacecraft had six cameras on board. The cameras were fundamentally the same with differences in exposure times, fields of view, lenses, and scan rates. The camera system was divided into two channels, P (partial) and F (full). Each channel was self-contained with separate power supplies, timers, and transmitters. The F-channel had two cameras: the wide-angle A-camera and the narrow angle B-camera. The P-channel had four cameras: P1 and P2 (narrow angle) and P3 and P4 (wide angle). The final F-channel image was taken between 2.5 and 5 seconds before impact (altitude about 5 km) and the last P-channel image 0.2 to 0.4 seconds before impact (altitude about 600 m). The images provided better resolution than was available from Earth based views by a factor of 1000.

Mission list

Block 1 missions

  • Ranger 1, launched 23 August 1961, lunar prototype, launch failure
  • Ranger 2, launched 18 November 1961, lunar prototype, launch failure

Block 1, consisting of two spacecraft launched into Earth orbit in 1961, was intended to test the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle and spacecraft equipment without attempting to reach the Moon.

Most elements of spacecraft technology taken for granted today were untested before Ranger. Perhaps the most important of these was three-axis attitude stabilization, meaning that the spacecraft is fixed in relation to space instead of being stabilized by spinning. This would permit pointing large solar panels at the Sun, a large antenna at Earth, and cameras and other directional scientific sensors at their appropriate targets. Rocket propulsion carried aboard the spacecraft was another critically important new technology, needed for accurate targeting at the Moon or distant planets.

In addition, two-way communication and closed-loop tracking, requiring spacecraft and ground system development, and the use of on-board computing and sequencing combined with commands from the ground, all had to be developed and tried out in flight. Unfortunately, problems with the early version of the launch vehicle left Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 in short-lived, low-Earth orbits in which the spacecraft could not stabilize themselves, collect solar power, or survive for long. In 1962, JPL utilized the Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 design for the failed Mariner 1 and successful Mariner 2 deep-space probes to Venus.

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