A Russian robotic spacecraft headed for the lunar surface crashed with the moon, the Russian space agency said on Sunday, citing the results of a preliminary investigation a day after it lost contact with the vehicle.
It’s the latest spaceflight setback for a country that became the first country like the Soviet Union to put a satellite, a man and then a woman, into orbit during the Cold War.
The Luna 25 lander, Russia’s first space launch to the lunar surface since the 1970s, entered lunar orbit on Wednesday and was scheduled to land as soon as Monday. According to Roscosmos, the state-owned company that oversees Russia’s space activities, the spacecraft fired its engine at 2:10 p.m. Moscow time on Saturday in a bid to enter an orbit that would prepare it for a lunar landing. But an unexplained “emergency situation” arose.
On Sunday, Roscosmos said it lost contact with the spacecraft 47 minutes after the engine began firing. Attempts to restore communications failed, and Luna-25 deviated from its planned orbit and “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface,” Roscosmos said.
An inter-agency commission will be formed to investigate the reasons for the failure, it said.
Luna-25, which launched on Aug 11, was set to be the first mission to reach the moon’s south polar region. Government space programs and private companies around the world are interested in this part of the moon because they believe it may contain water ice that could be used by astronauts in the future.
The primary purpose of Luna-25 was to test technology for landing on the moon, and the loss of the lander during a less risky phase of the mission will put Russia’s space problems under the microscope.
For missions to the lunar surface, the rocket launch from Earth and the landing itself are the two most nerve-wracking moments. Three lunar landing attempts in the last four years – by India, an Israeli non-profit organization and a Japanese company – have all been successful in orbit around the moon but failed in the final minutes of the descent to the surface.
When missions are lost during orbital engine firing, the cause is often poor manufacturing and testing. These shortcomings were the basis for the failure of Russia’s last large robotic interplanetary probe, Phobos-Grunt, in 2011. Another contributing factor could be embarrassing human error, such as when NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in 1999 due to a merging in the Martian atmosphere-switchover between metric and imperial units.
Natan Eismont, a senior scientist at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which led Luna-25’s scientific operations, said the spacecraft’s engine underperformed during burns to adjust the spacecraft’s course.
“From what I can tell, and it was noted by outside observers, the correction was somewhat different from what was stated,” said Eismont, who said he was not directly involved with the mission.
Those mission controllers “were able to handle it successfully down to the last maneuver,” Eismont said. But the final burn to put Luna-25 in an orbit within 11 miles of the surface before landing required a major push that didn’t go as planned. “Most likely, the braking shock was either too strong or it went in the wrong direction.”
Eismont felt the mission managers should have taken more time.
“It’s up to the immediate participants to make those decisions” whether to proceed to land or remain in circular orbit for further troubleshooting, he said. “They made their decision and a commission should decide whether it was the right decision.”
The mission’s failure could come as a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who has used Russia’s achievements in space as part of his bid to stay in power.
That’s part of the Kremlin’s narrative, compelling to many Russians, that Russia is a great nation held back by a US-led West jealous of and threatened by Russia’s capabilities. In particular, the country’s state-owned space industry has been a valuable tool as Russia works to reshape its geopolitical relationship.
“Interest in our proposals is very high,” the head of Russia’s space program, Yuri Borisov, told Putin at a televised meeting in June, describing Russia’s plan to expand space cooperation with African countries. The initiative is part of the Kremlin’s overall effort to deepen economic and political ties with non-Western countries amid European and American sanctions.
However, coverage of the Luna 25 mission was muted and remained so even after the spacecraft’s apparent crash.
For example, Sunday night’s 6 p.m. newscast on state-owned Channel 1 devoted just 40 seconds to the untimely end of Luna-25.
“It appears that the Luna 25 mission has ended,” said the Channel 1 presenter, adding a positive note: “Scientists have obtained invaluable information about the surface of the moon, among other things.”
The vaguely optimistic tone was echoed by Anatoly Petrukovich, also of the Space Research Institute.
“We are working on it,” Petrukovich told the state news agency Tass, referring to upcoming moon missions, “and we hope that this work will not be slowed down, but accelerated.”
In recent decades, Russia’s exploration of Earth’s solar system has fallen far short of Soviet-era peaks.
The last unqualified success was more than 35 years ago, when the Soviet Union was still intact. A pair of twin spacecraft, Vega 1 and Vega 2, launched six days apart. Six months later, the two spacecraft flew past Venus, each dropping a capsule containing a lander that successfully landed on the hellish planet’s surface and a balloon that, when released, floated through the atmosphere. In March 1986, the two spacecraft then passed about 5,000 miles from Halley’s Comet, taking photos and examining the dust and gas from the comet’s nucleus.
Subsequent missions to Mars, launched in 1988 and 1996, failed.
The embarrassing low came in 2011 with Phobos-Grunt, which was scheduled to land on Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, and return rock and soil samples to Earth. But Phobos-Grunt never made it out of Earth orbit. A few months later it burned up in the earth’s atmosphere.
An investigation later revealed that Russia’s cash-strapped space agency had skimped on manufacturing and testing, using electronic components that hadn’t been proven to withstand the cold and radiation of space.
Otherwise, Russia has been limited to low Earth orbit, including carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which it jointly manages with NASA.
Luna-25 was scheduled to complete a year-long mission to study the composition of the lunar surface. It should also demonstrate technologies that would have been used in a number of robotic missions and lay the groundwork for a lunar base it plans to build with China.
But the schedule for those missions — Luna 26, 27, and 28 — is years off the original schedule, and now more delays are likely to follow, especially as the Russian space program is struggling financially and technologically due to sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.
Roscosmos will face the difficult decision of whether to repeat the Luna 25 mission or leave the landing technology untested for now and move on to more ambitious follow-up missions. If Russia decides to fly Luna-25 again, it will likely result in a delay of years.
Although NASA and the European Space Agency continue to work with Russia on the International Space Station, other joint space projects ended after the invasion of Ukraine. For the lunar missions, this means that Russia will have to replace important components that should have come from Europe.
Russia is struggling to develop new space hardware, particularly electronics that will function reliably in the harsh conditions of space.
“You can’t really fly in space without better electronics, or at least not fly in space for long,” said Anatoly Zak, who edits RussianSpaceWeb.com, which tracks Russia’s space activities. “Soviet electronics have always been backward. They have always lagged behind the West in this area of science and technology.”
He added: “The entire Russian space program is actually affected by this problem.”
Other ambitious Russian space plans are also behind schedule and likely to take much longer than official announcements.
Angara, a family of missiles in development for two decades, has only been launched six times.
A few days ago Vladimir Kozhevnikov, chief designer of Russia’s next space station, told the Interfax news agency that Oryol, a modern replacement for the venerable Soyuz capsule, will make its maiden flight in 2028.
Back in 2020, Dmitry Rogozin, then-head of Roscosmos, said that Oryol’s first flight would occur in 2023 – meaning the launch date has been pushed back by five years in just three years.
India is now getting a chance to land the first probe near the lunar south pole. The Chandrayaan-3 mission launched in July but opted for a more circuitous but fuel-efficient route to the moon. The landing attempt is scheduled for Wednesday.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Sudheer Kumar, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, of the Russian lander crash. “Any space mission is very risky and highly technical.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.