Moon rocket blasts off, carrying Russia’s hope of first successful lunar landing since 1976

By Andrew Roth,
Published by The Guardian, 10 August 2023

The Luna-25 mission will try to land near the south pole of the moon, seeking signs of water or its components

A Soyuz-2 Fregat rocket carrying a lunar landing craft has blasted off on what Russia hopes will be its first successful moon landing mission in nearly 50 years.

The unmanned Luna-25 mission launched in the early hours of Friday on a journey to the moon that is expected to take about five days. A landing date has not been announced.

The Luna-25 mission will seek to land near the south pole of the moon, collecting geological samples from the area, and sending back data for signs of water or its building blocks, which could raise the possibility of a future human colony on the moon.

But the first goal was to prove that Russia still can launch a lunar landing mission after numerous failures in the past, generations of turnover among its scientific experts, delays due to sanctions and now isolation due to its war in Ukraine.

Post-Soviet Russia has launched two failed space landing missions, the Mars-96 in 1996 and Phobos-Grunt in 2011, both of which crash-landed into the Pacific Ocean.

Vitaly Egorov, a blogger who writes extensively on space exploration, said: “Now 12 years laterthey’re launching Luna-25 and the main intrigue is whether or not it will succeed in reaching [the moon] or not, and if it does, can it actually land there?

“One of the main goals is to let modern specialists put down space probes softly on celestial objects. They haven’t had that experience in 47 years. That knowledge needs to be restored for new specialists on a new technological level.”

Moscow’s last successful lunar mission came in 1976, when the Soviet Union launched the Luna 24 probe, which landed in the Mare Crisium lunar plain and returned geographical samples that Soviet scientists said showed the presence of water on the moon.

Simply reaching the moon without incident will be considered a success.

“The question of prestige always plays a role in interplanetary research, in China and the United States as well, that’s why the Russian government gave money to this exploration,” said Egorov. “I call this activity the Brain Olympics. It’s a real competition, testing of strength, in a peaceful way, and they are comparing scientists, technology, and their economies.”

The launch came shortly after the launch of India’s Chandrayaan-3 space probe, which entered the moon’s orbit earlier this week, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation. The probe includes a lander and rover, which will also explore the water-rich area near the south pole of the moon.

The area is one of the least-explored of the moon’s surfaces. Only the Soviet Union, China and the US have previously managed to land probes on the moon, and marks an unlikely confluence of missions that almost indicates a new race.

Roscosmos has indicated it hopes that its Luna-25 mission will land on the moon before the Indian probe. “There is no danger that they interfere with each other or collide. There is enough space for everyone on the moon,” the Russian state space corporation said in remarks published by Reuters.

Sanctions since 2014 and 2022 have hobbled the Russian space programme, cutting it off from western technology and funding. The launch in 2019 was delayed because a landing radar that Roscosmos planned to import from the west was no longer available after 2014, Egorov said. After attempting to manufacture the radar domestically, Roscosmos determined that it was unnecessary for the mission.

Tougher sanctions since 2022 will likely increase shortages for years to come, meaning that even if Russia is successful this time, it may not be able to repeat that mission or launch further probes without manufacturing its own alternatives.

“It is not clear when and if Russia will be capable to launch Luna-26 and -27,” said Pavel Luzin, an expert on Russia’s military and aerospace industries.

“Moreover, because of breakdown of space cooperation ties with Nasa and ESA [the European Space Agency], there are no other space exploration missions within the Russian space programme besides the Luna probes. In this way, Luna-25 plays today a mostly psychological and propaganda role for the Kremlin. It needs to demonstrate that it is capable to do something even without the west.”

The Luna-25 lander, which is also known as the Luna-Glob Lander, has a robotic arm to collect surface samples from the moon and eight onboard scientific instruments, including a range of spectrometers and imaging systems, as well as communications equipment to beam data back to Earth. Its mission is expected to last for one year. The Indian lander will be active for just two weeks.

It will be carried into orbit by a Soyuz-2 Fregat rocket, which is a smaller launch vehicle than those used in previous unsuccessful missions.

Officials said they would evacuate residents of Shakhtinsky, a small village in the far east, on the very unlikely chance that a rocket stage could come crashing down on their homes.

Egorov said the mission was seen as having a higher level of success than previous missions, in part because of lessons learned from the mistakes that doomed the Phobos-Grunt and its predecessors.

He said: “Luna-25 is possible to show that Russia and the Russian space programme and its specialists can have some positive influence and enrich international science and not just play at militarisation and fulfil the wishes of the ministry of defence.”

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