LONDON – Russia is expected to launch its first mission to the moon in almost 50 years on Friday, joining India in a space race, which is also aiming to land a lunar ship this month.
The launch of the Luna 25 spacecraft to the moon will be Russia’s first since 1976, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, and will be carried out without support from the European Space Agency, which ended cooperation with Russia after invading Ukraine.
The Russian lunar lander is expected to reach the moon on Aug. 23, around the same day as an Indian spacecraft launched on July 14.
The modules of both countries are on their way to the lunar south pole, an area where no spacecraft has landed smoothly.
Only three governments managed to land successfully on the moon: the Soviet Union, the USA and China.
Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, said it wanted to show that Russia is “a state capable of transporting a payload to the moon” and “ensure Russia’s guaranteed access to the lunar surface.”
“Moon exploration is not the goal,” said Vitaly Egorov, a popular Russian space analyst. “The aim is a political competition between two superpowers – China and the US – and a number of other countries that also want to claim the title of space superpower.”
The sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine make it difficult for the country to access Western technology and affect its space program.
The Luna-25 was originally intended to carry a small lunar rover, but that idea was abandoned in order to reduce the spacecraft’s weight and thus increase reliability, analysts say.
“Foreign electronics are lighter, domestic electronics are heavier,” Egorov said. “While scientists may be tasked with studying the moon’s water, for Roscosmos the primary mission is simply to land on the moon. To restore lost Soviet expertise and learn how to cope with this task in a new era.”
The Luna-25 will be launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
The Cosmodrome is a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin and is crucial to his efforts to make Russia a space superpower and to relocate Russian launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
It is unclear whether Putin will attend the launch of the lunar module.
In 2016, he was present at the failed launch of a Soyuz rocket, after which Russian media reported that he severely rebuked officials.
A previous Indian attempt to land at the moon’s south pole in 2019 ended with the lander impacting the lunar surface.
The lunar south pole is of particular interest to scientists who believe the permanently shadowed polar craters may contain water.
The frozen water in the rocks could be turned into air and rocket fuel by future explorers.
“The moon is largely untouched and the moon’s entire history is written on its face,” said Ed Bloomer, an astronomer at Britain’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich. “It’s pristine and unlike anything else on Earth. It’s its own lab.”
The Luna-25 is designed to take samples of lunar rocks and dust.
The samples are vital to understanding the moon’s environment before building a base there. “Otherwise we could build things and have to shut them down six months later because basically everything was sandblasted,” Bloomer said.