Russia’s moon cooperation plans are yet another space causality of the country’s ongoing attack against Ukraine.
In an April 13 statement, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced it was severing cooperative activities with Russia on the upcoming Luna-25, 26 and 27 missions. The agency wrote that “the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the resulting sanctions put in place represent a fundamental change of circumstances and make it impossible for ESA to implement the planned lunar cooperation.”
Europe’s decision to cut ties with Russia on the Luna program follows on the heels of ESA suspending the ExoMars mission, a collaboration with Russia that had been scheduled for launch this September. ExoMars would have paired an ESA-built Mars rover with a Russian-supplied lander for a mission on the Red Planet. (That landing module is still in Europe. Dmitry Rogozin, general director of Russia’s space program Roscosmos, recently asserted that it “must be returned.”)
Russian Moon Plans
Despite ESA’s pullout, Russia seems poised to move forward with its moon exploration agenda. Rogozin plans to replace ESA equipment with Russian devices. “Instead of these instruments, we will put our scientific instruments,” he emphasized in an appearance on a Russian television channel.
The planned Luna missions rekindle a former Soviet Union undertaking that finished decades ago. The most recent of the pioneering Soviet moon missions was Luna-24, which lobbed roughly six ounces (170 grams) of lunar near-side collectibles back to Earth in 1976. But getting Russia’s renewed survey efforts in shape is a work in progress.
The upcoming Luna-25 mission will test soft-landing technology to gently touch down on the moon’s surface. To that end, ESA was to provide Pilot-D, a navigation camera. The lander is also intended to gauge natural resources, including water, at the moon’s south pole and investigate the effects of cosmic rays and electromagnetic radiation on the lunar surface. Luna-25 was originally targeted for takeoff last year, in October 2021, but its send-off has been repeatedly delayed. The current goal date is August 2022, according to Alexander Mitkin, deputy general designer of electrical systems at the Russian aerospace company that built and tested the probe, NPO Lavochkin. Further tests could put off its launch until later in the year, however.
“We will resume the lunar program,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin during an April 12 visit to the country’s Vostochny Cosmodrome. “We are ordered by the desire of our ancestors to move forward. Despite any difficulties and any attempts to prevent us in this movement from the outside, we will definitely consistently and persistently implement all the plans.”
The Luna Agenda
Russia also plans two follow-on missions after Luna-25: Luna-26, a mission to study the moon from low polar orbit, and another lander mission, Luna-27, which would study lunar regolith on the surface.
For Luna-27, ESA had been working on Prospect, a robotic drill with a suite of scientific instruments designed to penetrate the moon’s soil, acquire lunar samples and deliver them to a miniature laboratory hosted on the probe. The craft was also slated to make its moon landing using a variant of the European navigation camera Pilot-D.
Once Luna-27 reached the moon’s surface, it was set to deploy ESA’s Prospect drill and a Russian instrument to search for water ice and other chemicals under the surface. Operating at temperatures of –150 degrees Celsius and drilling more than one meter down, Prospect was fabricated to do a deep dive into the frozen lunar terrain.
In the meantime, ESA recently announced that the agency has already secured an opportunity for the Luna-27’s Prospect gear to fly onboard a NASA-led Commercial Lunar Payload Services flight. Additionally, the announcement said ESA is procuring an alternative flight opportunity with “a commercial service provider” to test the agency’s Pilot-D for precision landing and hazard avoidance. This capability, ESA explained, is needed for European lunar exploration activities such as the proposed European Large Logistics Lander.
“While the rest of the world is teaming up to explore our lunar neighbor with audacious robotic missions, Russia’s Luna collaborations are being abandoned by ESA because of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” says Colleen Hartman, director of space and aeronautics at the Space Studies Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “ESA’s bold action allows free countries to enhance their international lunar collaborations with hardware once destined for a Russian mission. Russia can go to the moon alone, but space exploration is best done with trusted partners, sharing in the excitement of exploration and discovery.”
Chinese-Russian Space Cooperation?
ESA is not the only agency Roscosmos was involved with—but its cooperation with seemingly cozier China is may also be in flux. Luna-25 was to open a long-term Russian lunar program that included missions to study the moon from orbit and the surface, collect and return lunar soil to Earth and work with the China National Space Administration to create an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). “We have not only memorandums; we already have intergovernmental agreements with China on the creation of a lunar research base,” Rogozin said in his Russian television appearance.
But relations between scientists from Russia and China are currently paused, according to Alexander Sergeev, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Speaking at the Digital International Relations conference held at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations earlier this month, Sergeev said that Chinese partners of the Russian Academy of Sciences, like ESA, have suspended contacts with Russian scientists on joint projects. “I can directly say that our Chinese scientific colleagues have also ‘paused,’” he said, according to a report from the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. “Over the past month, we have not been able to enter into a serious discussion of the situation with them despite [earlier] well-built cooperation with regular communication.”
It is unclear to what extent this pause in collaboration with China will influence joint work on the ILRS. Last year the China National Space Administration and Roscosmos signed an intergovernmental Memorandum of Understanding on the creation of a lunar research base to be up and operating by 2036.
But according to Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com, based on internal Russian policy documents, “China never had any real plans to cooperate with Russia on the lunar base or on anything else significant in space.”
Zak, an expert on Russia’s space program, calls the ILRS “just a low-cost propaganda campaign for the West, which has nothing behind it besides some cartoonish presentations and nonbinding pronouncements.” At this point, he says, the Chinese space program is so far ahead of any Russian project that it is virtually impossible for the two to have an equal partnership. For several months now this situation has been growing more pronounced, Zak adds. “The Chinese decision to cut wider scientific ties is totally in line with what was already happening,” he says.
Renationalization of Space Exploration
The rupture of space cooperation between Russia and its international partners has multiple consequences, says Andrew Jenks, a professor of Russian history and the history of technology at California State University, Long Beach. “Space collaboration had been, ironically, one of the ways to attempt to transcend competition and hostility back on Earth, in part by making science and technology a seemingly neutral ground upon which ideological combatants could meet and cooperate,” he says. “But sometimes, as now, the push of earthly politics is such that it destroys the political will to collaborate in space.”
Punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and making a statement against brutal Russian actions will hurt Western participants as well as Russia, Jenks adds. Putin has made increasing isolation from the West—the creation of a “Fortress Russia”—one of his goals, and he is moving fast in that direction in every sphere, including space exploration, Jenks says. “I think of all the thousands of space engineers, contractors and scientists whose careers and livelihoods have been put on hold or even derailed because of the decision to cut off participation in the Luna missions, as well as the earlier cancellation of the ExoMars rover with Roscosmos,” he says.
Looking at the current situation as a historian, Jenks says that the period of space collaboration that began decades ago may be coming to an end. “Now a renationalization of space exploration is occurring,” he says. Jenks notes one potential silver lining to this divide: Europe may find a way to wean itself from dependence on Russian rockets for launches and develop alternative sources.
Although the moon looms large in future programs from Russia, China and the U.S., that world appears to be a free-floating free-for-all.