After 47 years, Russia has launched its lunar mission, Luna-25, sending a lander toward the moon. The Luna-25 mission lifted off today atop a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s far eastern Amur Region.
Amidst an intense Ukraine war, Russia could upstage India’s attempt to become the first country to reach the South Pole of the Moon. Despite being launched four weeks after India’s Chandrayan-3, the Russian Luna 25 is likely to make the touchdown shortly before or at the same time on August 23.
In any case, the rendezvous of the two lunar missions on the Moon is being observed across the world for ushering in a new era of space exploration.
India’s earlier attempt to make a soft landing on Moon with its Chandrayaan-2 failed after the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) lost contact with its Vikram lander just 400 meters away from the landing surface. It had crash-landed on the lunar surface.
“This is clearly to ensure that India, a closer ally of the USA nowadays, does not have the upper hand,” leading Indian astrophysicist Sandip Chakrabarti was quoted saying by IBT News.
“This is very unfortunate, and any progressive and scientific body should take note of the history of the USSR. Ever since the space race began, USSR/Russia has been known to break trust,” he added.
The south pole of the Moon is a potential source of water. Rocky terrain makes landing on the south pole a difficult but promising destination, as scientists believe it holds large quantities of ice.
The ice can be used to extract fuel and oxygen, besides providing drinking water. Oxygen and hydrogen can serve as rocket fuels to travel to Mars and beyond one day, while water can support the first human colonies.
Russia is expected to fire its Luna-25 lunar lander mission in the wee hours of August 11 from Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome. The residents of the nearby village of Shakhtinsky, in Russia’s Khabarovsk region, have been asked to evacuate in the remote chance that the rocket falls during launch, Alexei Maslov, head of the Verkhnebureinskyi district of the region, said in a post to Telegram on Monday.
The location was chosen so that the entire mission stays within Russia’s borders (normally, rockets are launched from Kazakhstan). It also allows for a more direct trajectory that avoids large inhabited areas.
The Luna-25 is described by Russian state news agency Tass as “the first domestically-made probe in modern Russia’s history.” Luna-25 spacecraft will take about five days to travel to the Moon. Thereafter it will spend around five to seven days in lunar orbit before descending to one of the three potential landing sites near the pole.
“It is planned that the device will be the first in the world to carry out a soft landing on the surface of the moon in the south pole region and conduct contact studies of the lunar soil for the presence of ice at the landing site,” a statement from the Russian space agency Roscosmos said.
Chandrayaan-3 aims to demonstrate a safe and soft landing on the lunar surface, rover mobility, and in-situ scientific experiments, according to ISRO.
21st Century’s Race To Moon
The race has reminded the world of the Cold War era’s space race between USSR and the USA. The name of the lunar mission of Russia takes after Luna-24, which managed to reach an equatorial zone of the Moon, take soil samples, and send them back to Earth in 1976.
The US then sent astronauts to the Moon, who returned with lunar rocks.
In the 21st century, a new race to the Moon is on, but Russia is continuing with its competitiveness when it comes to space.
The US Space Agency NASA announced in April 2023 that it will send “humanity’s crew” to the south pole of the Moon by the end of 2024. The African-American crew, including the first woman, has been assigned to the US first crewed lunar mission in half a century.
Russia might not be able to match the feat yet, but it is certainly aiming to become the first country to land in the unchartered territory on the Moon, which in the future can be a springboard to the onward journey to the Red Planet Mars’.
Luna-25, originally scheduled to be launched in 2021, has been delayed owing to technical difficulties. The ongoing war with Ukraine and the ensuing Western sanctions have proved to be a big impediment for the Roscosmos.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Roscosmos was collaborating with the European Space Agency, which was going to contribute to the project. However, as ESA pulled out of the project, Russia was left alone on its trip to the Moon.
Russia has chosen the Boguslawsky crater, named after a Prussian artillery officer who took part in the invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic wars, besides two more locations identified in case something goes awry. The landing point is believed to have water, a key element for future manned missions.
Landing on the Lunar surface has been challenging as the Moon lacks an atmosphere that could slow down a spacecraft. So far, only the US, erstwhile USSR, and China have managed it.
The Luna-25 will have to rely on its rockets to reduce its speed and avoid landing on a steep area and falling over, which happened to some of its predecessors half a century ago. In April 2022, the Japanese probe Hakuto-R crashed while trying to land on the Moon.
The day on the Moon is equivalent to 14.5 Earth days of sunlight and as many at night. During the day, the temperature goes up to 120 degrees Celsius; at night, the Mercury plummets to 200 degrees Celsius below zero.
The Russian probe will carry solar panels that will operate during the day and a radioisotope device to generate heat with plutonium at night when it hibernates until dawn.
After its launch on August 11, the Russian spacecraft will take about four to five days to reach the Moon. Once it reaches the orbit, it will fire up its rockets to descend towards the south pole. If all goes as planned, Luna-25 could create history.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com