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For those of you waiting on tenterhooks, here is the news:

Mechta, a.k.a. Dream a.k.a. Lunik has soared past the moon. Skimming just 4,700 miles over the surface of the Earth's celestial neighbor, Mechta has become the first artificial object to escape Earth's gravity and enter solar orbit, where it will remain for the foreseeable future.

Already, the signals from the spacecraft are getting hard to pick up. Nevertheless, the instruments on the Soviet probe have already returned some fascinating preliminary results. For instance, it is now clear that, unlike the Earth, the moon has no magnetic field. This is not unexpected--the moon is a lot less dense than the Earth and thus is unlikely to have the iron core currently believed to be required to generate a magnetic field. Moreover, the moon is small enough that any iron it does have in its center is likely frozen solid, and it is believed that a spinning liquid iron core is necessary to generate a planetary magnetic field.

So any space travelers heading to the moon won't be able to use their compasses. On the other hand, I imagine that the sun and the Earth, the former moving slowly across the lunar sky over the course of two weeks, the latter hanging fixed in the heavens (at least from half of the moon), will provide perfectly adequate navigational aids.

It is expected that Mechta will also return data on solar radiation in interplanetary space, but that will take a while to reach print.



Of course, the real mystery of Mechta still has not been solved. Western newspapers are describing the mission as an "overshoot" and a "near miss," but was Mechta even aimed at the moon? TASS (the Soviet government news agency) certainly has not confirmed this. On the other hand, Moscow Radio stated last night that Mechta would be taking pictures of the moon's hitherto unseen far side; this report was later retracted as erroneous.

Curiouser and curiouser! Was there a camera on board Lunik? There certainly was enough space for one--at least, an American-built one. Was the probe supposed to orbit the moon? If not, what was all that extra payload for? And is there any connection between this flight and the unorthodox visit to the United States by Anastas Mikoyan, the U.S.S.R's number 2 political honcho?

I've said before that reading the news these days is like reading a science fiction magazine. It wouldn't take much for an enterprising author to take today's headlines and turn them into tomorrow's stories.

Hmmm......

Speaking of which, I promise to return to covering the world of science fiction in two days. Stay tuned!

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Bet on the Russians to throw us a curve.

Last month, I crowed that America had won the Space Race in 1958 with the launching of Score, the first communications satellite, and of the mildly successful Pioneer series. Well, the Soviets apparently just wanted to give us a false feeling of security, because they have finally launched their own moon probe. They call it "Mechta" or "Dream," while the press has affectionately (or derisively, as they drink their sour grape punch) dubbed it "Lunik."

It takes a day-and-a-half to get to the moon, so the Reds may yet suffer a Pioneer-style setback halfway there. Nevertheless, the probe has already broken altitude records. Moreover, the craft weighs almost 800 pounds, dwarfing anything we put up in 1958. The U.S.S.R. clearly has a new rocket, and it's a doozy.

Interestingly, the Soviets have been rather cagy as to the exact purpose of this probe. Is it supposed to impact the moon? Is it supposed to enter lunar orbit, as was the intention of the American Pioneers? Or will it just fly by? All Moscow will say is, "The multi stage cosmic rocket has gone out according to its program on the trajectory of its movement in the direction of the moon." The excerpt below doesn't clarify much either, though it does sound ambitious:



The Soviets have announced that Mechta is carrying a similar slew of experiments to that carried on the Air Force Pioneers. These experiments are designed to investigate the intensity of magnetic fields around the Earth and moon, as well as the space in-between. They include a magnetometer, a geiger counter, a scintillation counter. There is also a micrometeorite detector on board. One has to wonder if these instruments are any better than the ones lofted in Pioneers 0-2; while they weigh an order of magnitude more, this may well be because the Soviets are behind us in miniaturization technology. On the other hand, it may be that the satellite is carrying a secret payload--perhaps there is another dog on board, or maybe a flea circus.

Lunik has made its mark on history already, however--literally. I am told that the probe released a cloud of sodium gas late last night when it was about a quarter of the way to the moon. I can think of two reasons for this. Scientifically, it allows us to determine the effects of the space environment on clouds of sodium gas. Politically, it proves that the Soviets actually did send a probe to the moon, their news outlets having skewed somewhat left of complete honesty in the past few decades.

So stay tuned. By January 5th, I shall either report to you of the triumphant success of the first Soviet lunar shot or of its failure. If the latter be the case, at least it will be in good company.

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