Why the West did not believe in Luna 1

Sven Grahn Sollentuna, Sweden

During the spring of 1959 stories appeared in US electronics magazines and in the popular press which claimed that the Soviet Moon probe Luna 1, or Lunik as it was known then, never existed.

The evidence, the stories said, was that there were no confirmed radio receptions in the West of signals from the probe, despite the fact that Radio Moscow announced the transmission frequencies 6 hours after the launch which occurred at 1641 UT on January 2, 1959.

The press stories also pointed out that major installations like the British Jodrell Bank radio observatory failed to pick up the signals. Reports from credible sources, like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, were discounted with numerous arguments about radio noise from Jupiter, local interference etc. The whole line of reasoning of these press reports were summed up by a reporter, Lloyd Mallan, in his book "The Big Red Lie" (4).

It is now possible to examine in more detail what caused all this uncertainty. First, one must remember that all this occurred at the very early stages of space exploration (15 months after Sputnik 1!) and that there was very little experience in receiving signals from satellites and almost no experience in tracking objects into deep space. Luna 1 was the first object to pass the Moon.

Signals on 183.6 MHz

The probe transmitted in two distinctly separate frequency bands, 183.6 MHz and on several frequencies around 20 MHz. The 183 MHz band was and still is used for television in most parts of the world, so there was no equipment available immediately in the professional organizations trying to track Lunik. Also, although not entirely out of reach of the radio amateur community, VHF gear in this frequency range was not easily whipped together by amateurs in a few hours. Remember, those were the days of the Nuvistor miniature tube for low noise receiving equipment! Nobody could then dream of today's frequency-synthesized scanning receivers which the man in the street can buy at a cost comparable to a Hi-Fi set!

So, in essence, only two organizations (unclassified, that is), JPL and Jodrell Bank were able to try 183.6 MHz. JPL obviously threw a lot of work into the effort and worked around the clock with skilled personnel to put together a receiving converter. Jodrell was not so successful. Remember, Lunik was launched on a Friday. All the tracking had to be done over the weekend!

JPL tried to receive the probe during the period 1000-2200 UT on January 3, but the very quickly assembled equipment did not work very well. While waiting for the next tracking opportunity the equipment was modified and according to JPL director Pickering the system gain was increased by 40 dB!

The receiver was located in the antenna structure where the technicians operating the receiver would call by intercom to the control room (where the dish was steered) whether or not they had the signal. The control room noted declination and right ascension (the 85 foot dish had a polar mount). JPL found that the signal, although weak, was located where the Russians said it would be. The dispersion in the Dec-RA data was only a few degree in each axis! The signal was approximately 2 KHz FSK with a 5 Hz keying rate. It is interesting to note that JPL picked up the signal 8 hours after Lunik passed the Moon! The distance to the probe must have been more than 450000 km.

Signals on shortwaves

Well, this frequency range would have given radio amateurs with all their HF gear a marvelous chance to hear Lunik on 20 MHz for long periods. However, this was not the case at all. The reason for this failure can be found in the hard realities of HF reception. Since the probe was launched in the direction of the Moon a condition for receiving the probe when it was far away would be line-of-sight visibility (no ionospheric skip effects likely for various reasons).

Also, as pointed out in (1), it is necessary to have a very low sky noise and background interference from terrestrial stations to track an object outside the ionosphere out to these distances. This requires darkness at the receiver. As demonstrated in (1), the only periods for hearing Lunik on 20 MHz was between "proberise" (approximately equal to "moonrise") and sunrise. As shown in figure 1 this condition lasted only for about 5 hours at middle latitudes.

So, when observers on the US East Coast came into view of the probe at about 0630 UT on January 3, 1959 it was about 170 000 km from Earth! The great distance may have contributed to the failure of stations on the US East Coast to receive the probe on 20 MHz.

The only known report of HF signals received by a US tracking post comes from Stanford University in California (ref 2 p.2). Stanford picked up signals on 19.993 MHz using two-element Yagis steerable in azimuth. One Yagi was horizontally polarized, the other vertically polarized. The azimuth of the signals was determined by peaking the signals by turning the antennas. Signals were picked up during the period 1045-1300 UT on January 3, 1959. This agrees well with "proberise" at about 1000 UT and sunrise at about 1500 UT.

The equipment used in (1) has about 4-5 times more antenna gain that the Stanford setup an it is therefore reasonable that they may have tracked Lunik all the way to the Moon on shortwaves.

So, moderately equipped trackers on HF (like amateurs) had only a 5-hour interval on January 3 to receive the probe. In Europe the launch announcement came near midnight so very few amateurs were alerted. When the probe came into view from the US it was already far away from Earth.

In (2) there is also a report about the reception Hawaii of short-wave FSK signals (frequency shift = 2 kHz) identical to those played by Radio Moscow, i.e. with approximately one frequency shift per second. This signal was reportedly received by a station affiliated with the National Security Agency at 1701 UT on January 2, 1959.

To receive Lunik on shortwaves with rather unsophisticated equipment probably required that the probe was close to Earth. A report which seems reliable was in in Swedish newspapers on January 3. The monitoring station of the Swedish Telecommunications Administration at Enköping picked up signals in the winter night on 19.993 MHz (same frequency as Stanford) several times during the period 0024-0314 UT on January 3, 1959. It seems that this observation lies within the "proberise"-to-sunrise period.

Signals on 70.2 MHz

There may have been other signals picked up by "classified" stations. The report from Stanford (2) mentions that it was alerted to the possible use of the frequency 71.2 MHz by Lunik and that the station tried this frequency by hooking up a six-element Yagi to a Nems-Clarke receiver.

In (3) it is reported that the USAF station at Hilo, Hawaii picked up signals on 70.2 MHz 15-20 minutes after launch and that other USAF stations also picked up 70.2 MHz and 212 MHz. These stations were Singapore, Millstone Hill (Mass., USA) and Cape Canaveral.

It is entirely believable that there were signals on these frequencies and that at least Hawaii got them. On the last stage of the A-2 (Vostok-type in Soviet parlance) vehicle there are hairpin shaped antennas very well matching the two frequencies. It is doubtful if these signals could be heard very far out from Earth since they were probably rather broadband containing high speed telemetry from many sensors associated with the propulsion system in the last stage. Also, the batteries for these transmitters probably went dead quickly.

Summary of signals

Below follows a summary of signals known to have been received and deemed to be reliable above:
Time Frequency Location
January 2, 1959
1701 UT 20 MHz (approx.) Hilo, Hawaii (USAF/NASA)
1700 UT 70.2 MHz Hilo, Hawaii (USAF/NASA)
January 3, 1959
0024-0314 UT 19.993 MHz Enköping, Sweden
1045-1300 UT 19.993 MHz Stanford Univ. California
January 4, 1959
1130-1500 UT 183.6 MHz Barstow, California (JPL)

Figure 1 Summary of events, observations and visibility


  1. V.A. Kotelnikov, .M. Dubrovin, O.N. Rzhiga and A.M. Shakhovsky, "Reception and investigation of the properties of radio signals from Soviet Space Rockets"
  2. Hearings before the Committee on Science and Astronautics and Special Subcommittee on Lunik Probe, U.S. House of Representatives, eighty-sixth Congress, First Session, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1959. The hearings were held during the period May 11-29, 1959.
  3.  Martin Caidin, "Race for the Moon" William Kimber Publisher, London 1960.
  4. Lloyd Mallan, "The Big Red Lie" Fawcett Book no 417, New York, 1959.

[Sven's Space Place]

[Space Tracking Notes]

Copyright © 1996 Sven Grahn