A rocket carrying a lunar lander took off on Russia’s first lunar mission in almost 50 years on Friday, racing in front of an Indian spacecraft for a landing on the moon.
The launch of the Luna-25 spacecraft from Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Far East to the moon is Russia’s first since 1976, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union.
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 Russian spacecraft will take about 5.5 days to get close to the moon and then an orbit of about 100 kilometers (62 miles) for three to seven days before making their way to the surface.
Only three governments managed to land successfully on the moon: the Soviet Union, the USA and China. India and Russia want to be the first to land on the moon’s south pole.
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 waters, for Roscosmos the primary mission is simply to land on the moon – to recover lost Soviet expertise and learn how to carry out that task in a new era.”
According to Roskosmos video transmission, the Luna-25 launched flawlessly 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.
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.