Russia enters lunar exploration race by launching lander in search for moon water
Russia recently launched its first moon-landing spacecraft in nearly five decades with the goal of achieving the maiden soft landing on the lunar south pole which is believed to harbor valuable water ice deposits.
This new Russian lunar mission, marking the first since 1976, is in a competitive race against India's Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander, launched last month, and is part of the broader race with the United States and China actively engaged in lunar exploration programs that target the lunar south pole.
The Luna-25 craft, carried by a Soyuz 2.1 rocket, successfully took off from the Vostochny cosmodrome, situated about 3,450 miles (5,550 km) east of Moscow. The launch occurred at 2:11 a.m. Moscow time on Friday (1111 GMT on Thursday).
Approximately an hour later, the craft was propelled out of Earth's orbit towards the moon, with mission control taking control of the spacecraft.
The spacecraft is anticipated to touch down on the moon around August 21st, Yuri Borisov, Russia's space chief, shared this insight on state television, although the landing date had previously been set for August 23rd. Speaking from the Vostochny cosmodrome after the launch, Borisov expressed optimism about the mission's success: "Now we will wait for the 21st. I hope that a highly precise soft landing on the moon will take place. We hope to be first."
Luna-25, roughly equivalent in size to a small car, is designed to function for about a year on the moon's south pole. This location has gained a lot of interest due to the detection of traces of water ice in shadowed craters by scientists from NASA and other space agencies in recent years.
The outcome of the Luna-25 mission carries significant importance, as the Kremlin contends that Western sanctions arising from the Ukraine conflict have not significantly impacted Russia's aerospace sector or its economy.
This mission also serves as a test of the nation's self-reliance in space, especially after the separation of most of Moscow's space connections with the West following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Despite this, Russia maintains its integral role in the International Space Station.
While the European Space Agency initially intended to participate by attaching its Pilot-D navigation camera to Luna-25, it disengaged from the project in the wake of Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Although U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong's historic moonwalk in 1969 earned recognition, the Soviet Union achieved the first spacecraft landing on the moon's surface with Luna-2 in 1959, followed by the soft landing of Luna-9 in 1966.
Following these achievements, Russia directed its focus toward Mars exploration. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has refrained from sending scientific researchers beyond Earth's orbit.
The longstanding curiosity about water on the moon, given its extreme dryness compared to even the Sahara desert, has persisted for centuries. In 2018, NASA maps indicated the presence of water ice in shadowed lunar regions, and subsequently, in 2020, NASA confirmed the existence of water in sunlit areas as well.
Notably, no country has successfully executed a soft landing on the moon's south pole. India's Chandrayaan-2 mission encountered challenges in 2019, primarily due to the rugged terrain of the region.
The potential significance of discovering water ice in this area is immense, as it could serve as a vital resource for fuel, oxygen production, and even drinking water.
Borisov indicated that at least three more lunar missions are planned within the next seven years, and thereafter, Russia and China aim to collaborate on a potential crewed lunar mission. Maxim Litvak, head of the Luna-25 scientific equipment planning group, mentioned the presence of ice indications in the landing area's soil and shared that Luna-25 would conduct sample collection during its mission duration of at least one Earth year.
Roscosmos revealed that the journey to the moon would take around five days. Afterward, the spacecraft would spend 5-7 days in lunar orbit before descending to one of three potential landing sites near the south pole. This timeline suggests that Luna-25 could closely match or slightly outpace its Indian competitor in reaching the lunar surface.
With a weight of 1.8 tons and carrying 31 kg (68 pounds) of scientific equipment, Luna-25 will utilise a scoop mechanism to obtain rock samples from depths of up to 15 cm (6 inches), facilitating tests for frozen water presence.
With a pioneering spirit that back to historic achievements and a future-oriented vision for a lunar base, Russia's endeavour shows the unending human desire to unveil the mysteries of the cosmos and to carve out a path toward new frontiers.