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MOSCOW: The Soviet Union today [June 13] launched an unmanned Luna Moon probe which may be an eleventh hour bid to triumph the Apollo 11 mission and bring back to earth the first samples of the Moon’s surface.

A rocket bearing the highly automatic Luna 15 vehicle blasted off from the Baykonur space centre at 5.55 a.m. and went into earth’s orbit before the probe veered off on a Moon trajectory. “TASS” said Luna 15 would carry out “scientific research of the Moon and the cosmic lunar environment”.

But experts believed the Soviets would not risk an unfavourable comparison with the mission of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, who will make the first ever moon-fall in a few days, by not attempting something spectacular. They will not be surprised if Luna 15 makes a lunar landing and scoops up test specimen of the Moon’s crust before blasting off again to return to earth. Some observers speculated the Soviets might leave a “visiting card” at the point where the American lunar landing vehicle is due to touch down a few days later.

The British observatory at Jodrell Bank announced that it was receiving “loud and clear” signals from the Soviet Luna 15 moon probe this afternoon.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2019