Russia Launches First Lunar Probe in Almost 50 Years

Russia Launches First Lunar Probe in Almost 50 Years

Russia successfully launched the Luna-25 probe today almost 50 years after its last spacecraft landed on the Moon. Amidst backlash from its invasion of Ukraine that included the cancellation of significant space cooperation with other countries, Russia clearly wants to demonstrate it still is a player in space exploration. Today’s launch is one step, but landing on the Moon is fraught with risks as others recently experienced.

Luna-25 lifted off from Russia’s newest launch site, the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Siberia, at 7:10:57 pm EDT (23:10:57 UTC/2:10:57 am August 11 Moscow Time). Landing near the Moon’s South Pole is scheduled for August 21.

Luna-25 atop its Soyuz 2.1b rocket just before liftoff from Vostochny Cosmodrome, August 10, 2022 EDT. Screengrab.

This is Russia’s first lunar spacecraft since Luna-24 returned samples from the Moon in 1976.

Luna-25 is not a sample return mission, but a lander equipped with cameras and instruments to search for water, examine the composition of the lunar regolith, and study plasma and dust over the course of a year.

The Soviet Union racked up a number of lunar “firsts” in the early years of the Space Age including sending back the first photos of the far side of the Moon, soft landing on the Moon, robotically returning samples from the Moon, and sending robotic rovers to traverse the lunar surface.

Those successes were largely eclipsed by the U.S. Apollo program that sent astronauts, not just robotic spacecraft, to the Moon. Six Apollo crews returned 382 kilograms of lunar material compared to 226 grams from Luna 16, 20 and 24.

Both countries abandoned the Moon after that. U.S. interest resumed in the 1990s with Clementine and Lunar Prospector followed by a steady cadence of missions including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its rideshare Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), GRAIL, LADEE, the U.S. Moon Mineralogy Mapper (MMM) on India’s Chandrayaan-2, and today’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the surface that includes a number of robotic missions.

The Soviet Union had considerable success with robotic exploration of the Moon, Venus, and Halley’s Comet, but after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Russia focused its limited resources for space science on missions primarily in Earth orbit. The only deep space exploration missions were intended to visit Mars, but Mars ’96 (1996) and Phobos-Grunt (2011) were stranded in Earth orbit after their upper stages failed, continuing a long history of Soviet/Russian disappointments with Mars missions. They hoped to turn the tide by partnering with Europe on the ExoMars program. The first spacecraft, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, successfully launched in 2016 and is orbiting Mars right now, but Europe terminated cooperation with Russia on a companion ExoMars lander/rover set to launch last year after Russia invaded Ukraine.

That may have given a boost to Luna-25, which has been in the planning stages for decades. Journalist Anatoly Zak, a Moscow native who moved to the United States in 1993 and runs the website, writes that Luna-25, also called Luna-Glob, dates back to the 1990s, but couldn’t get traction because of funding difficulties and the focus on Mars.

Now Luna-25 is a symbol of Russia remaining a player in lunar exploration amid a resurgance of global interest in our nearest celestial neighbor. But invading Ukraine meant also losing Europe as a partner on this and two other lunar probes planned for later this decade.

Russia’s Soyuz 2.1b rocket lifts off from Vostochny Cosmodrome carrying Luna-25, August 10, 2022 EDT. Screengrab.

The United States along with international and commercial partners is pursuing the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface for long-term exploration and utilization. Robotic precursors will launch beginning this year with a human landing contemplated mid-decade. China has robotic landers on the Moon right now, including the first to land on the far side, and returned samples in 2020. China and Russia announced an International Lunar Research Station partnership in 2021 and are inviting other countries to join. ILRS will be mostly robotic spacecraft during the 2020s with human landings thereafter.

The advent of “New Space” small spacecraft has put lunar landers within reach not only of space agencies, but non-profits and commercial companies, although the success rate is zero so far. Since 2019, four attempts using small spacecraft failed: Israeli non-profit SpaceIL’s Beresheet, India’s Chandrayaan-2, Japan’s OMONTENASHI cubesat, and ispace’s HAKUTO-R M1 with a UAE rover. ispace is a Japanese commercial company.

All were headed to the Moon’s South Pole, which is of particular interest because LCROSS and MMM detected water in the regolith, possibly left over from comet impacts over the eons.

Illustration of Luna-25. Credit: NPO Lavochkin via NASA.

The South Pole is Luna-25’s destination, too, and it’s not alone. India’s Chandrayaan-3 is enroute right now, Japan will launch the SLIM lander later this month, and as many as three U.S. landers could launch before the end of the year.

If Luna-25 lands on August 21 as planned, it will beat Chandrayaan-3 by two days.

The launch today is a good first step, but there are many more to go before the mission is a success. A survivable landing is the hardest part. The space community will be watching closely.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a Tuesday briefing on the Artemis II mission that “we wish them well.” Nelson frequently points out that U.S.-Soviet space cooperation transcended political turmoil in the 1970s and insists Russia’s ongoing participation in the U.S.-Russian-European-Japanese-Canadian International Space Station similarly demonstrates that space unites nations despite earthly geopolitical conflicts.

Zak sees it differently. By email he told this evening:  “As all major space exploration projects, it has huge propaganda value for Russia, but obviously, ‘an elephant in the room’ or rather endless ruins of Ukrainian cities, thousands of dead and stolen children, imprisoned human rights activists are still asking for justice. This is impossible to ignore. … This mission is legitimate from the scientific and engineering perspective, but it reached the launch pad at the darkest time in the post-Soviet history.”


This article has been updated.

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