In 1959, as a tiny metallic ball approached the Moon, a young assistant observer of the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest peered through the telescope. The face of the full Moon shone brightly in the eyepiece – but suddenly, against all odds, a tiny black speck appeared, announcing another Soviet first in the Space Race: the Luna-2 probe successfully reached another heavenly body.
The young assistant was Miklós Lovas who worked in the Konkoly Observatory for many more decades. From the sixties, long before the automatized, large-scale programs, Konkoly was part of an international effort to discover statistically useful amounts of supernovae. Miklós, a keen-eyed observer detected dozens of events of stellar fury using the Schmidt telescope at the newly built Piszkéstető Mountain Station, making the observatory the fifth successful in the world. Incidentally but thankfully to this work, he also discovered five comets, two of which (93P/Lovas-1 and 184P/Lovas-2) are the only short-period comets bearing Hungarian names. Miklós, now retired, told me about the night of Luna-2.
Miklós Lovas: “We were down at the city during the day. We were walking back to the hill at the evening as there were no buses back then (just the cogwheel railway) and I found a man lingering in the garden of the observatory. He introduced himself as a journalist from MTI (the Hungarian press agency), and wanted to find somebody who can show him the impact of Luna-2 because TASS (the Soviet press agency) had announced that a space probe was heading to the Moon and would hit it on the evening of 12th September, 1959. We told him that it was pointless to search for such a small impact against the light of the full Moon and suggested him to discuss it with the director (László Detre). But the journalist kept on pushing and insisting and finally Detre said “just go out and watch it, why not”. We were joined at the telescope by Júlia Balázs, the wife of Detre and Béla Balázs(1). The Soviets had only provided the time so I had to fit an eyepiece that allowed to see the whole face of the Moon, I think even they didn't know where will it hit.
We knew of course that the velocity of the probe was huge. So, while the detection of the impact itself was impossible, it was plausible that the impact would generate a dust cloud. It turned out later that the impact location is covered with quite deep layers of dust.
We waited, took shifts at the eyepiece. I was at the telescope when, all of a sudden, a dark speck appeared. Júlia and Béla confirmed, they saw it too. The phenomenon lasted for about twenty minutes. It expanded and faded slowly, an expanding patch, like in the drawings. At first it was quite dark but it turned to gray and was much fainter towards the end.
The Soviets calculated that rocket stage impacted the Moon about half an hour later too. Did you notice anything?
No. We weren't really looking by that time because the news didn't mentioned anything. Maybe it was announced later but we did not know about it then. Afterwards we discussed of course that others had evidently observed it and how would the results be compared and the work continued. But we instead heard the Hungarian radio shouting “The impact of the Soviet Moon probe was seen from Budapest!” The turmoil lasted for a couple of days, the next day my skin was photographed off my face. We were at MTI too, along with Iván Almár, and we retold the story there too, as things like this happen
What about the Soviets?
They didn't see it! The Soviets objected most strongly, interestingly, claiming that we couldn't possibly see anything. They protested badly, maybe they were ashamed that no Soviet observers succeeded, but it really made no sense to us. Anyway, despite the objections, they have referred to our location of Palus Putredinis (Marsh of Decay) in their databases since.
Which telescope did you use? The Nature article lists a 7 inch one.
We used the guide scope of the 24 inch main reflector mostly. Béla Balázs tried another telescope but returned after a while claiming he had not seen anything there. That was still before the impact, actually, so he saw the event with us. I guess he got bored waiting alone. That telescope he used does not exist anymore, by the way. It was an old telescope from the Konkoly heritage (the founder of the observatory), an astrograph with an about 40 cm wide objective and 3 m focal length, designed to take photographs and was used to observe variable stars. I worked with that too.
And Luna-2 was the first of it's kind with these observations? Or were there information about the Luna-1 too?
Yes, it was, the Luna-1 missed the Moon as I remember. Space research was almost only a dream, the term just started to develop. We thought, just as others did that we hit the bulls-eye this time, would miss it the next time. When we got back to the main building, Detre was quite skeptical of our observations and said oh come on, it surely was nothing. That was possible, but we did see something we answered. He was finally convinced when the Hungarian radio broadcasted the impact time eight minutes before the Soviet radio from Moscow did...”
The observations were later published by Detre in the periodical of the observatory: “Bericht über optische Beobachtungen anlässlich der Landung der sowjetischen Mondrakete Lunik II”, Mitteilungen der Sternwarte Budapest-Svábhegy Nr. 45 (3). The first detection of the speck (21:02:30 UT) agreed well with the termination of the radio signal of the probe (21:02:24 UT). The few seconds difference can be accounted to the initial expansion of the dust cloud to observable size. The 2nd January 1960 edition of Nature (vol. 185) listed the positive observations. Among others, the British amateur astronomer legend Patrick Moore observed the Moon too and saw a momentary pinpoint of light about the same time, but at somewhat different location. Other methods such as radio interferometry from the Soviet Union, tracking with the Jodrell Bank radio telescope and the rocket's calculated ballistic trajectory agree best with the Konkoly observations. Photographic efforts at Pic du Midi and other places failed to record the dust cloud.
Official sources, like NASA's National Space Science Data Center lists Palus Putredinis as the impact location, according to the observations of Lovas and his colleagues. The eagle eyes of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter may find the needle in the haystack eventually – a small, young crater, representing the achievements of the once powerful hammer and sickle.
1. Júlia Balázs, wife of László Detre was an astronomer herself but was not a relative of the Balázs brothers, Béla and Lajos who are accomplished astronomers as well.
2. The 24-inch Heyde-Zeiss telescope was the original main instrument of the observatory: http://konkoly.hu/24
By László Molnár
Image 1: courtesy of Miklós Lovas
Images 2 and 4: from Mitteilungen Nr. 45, courtesy of Miklós Lovas, © Konkoly Observatory
Image 3: NASA public domain
Last Updated (Sunday, 05 September 2010 15:49)