There is a multicountry moon rush in progress. NASA is orchestrating the Artemis program of robotic and human lunar exploration, due to launch human explorers in 2024 at the earliest. China is preparing to hurl a sample-return mission to the moon this year, joining a Chinese lander and rover that are now on the lunar far side. Other nations, such as Japan and India, as well as private spaceflight firms, also have future lunar exploration in their crosshairs.
Now an “old-timer” is joining the celestial fray. Russia’s federal space agency Roscosmos announced in early August that flight units of scientific instruments for its Luna-25 moon lander had been delivered from the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IKI) to the Lavochkin Scientific and Production Association(which is part of Roscosmos). The flight is scheduled to launch in October 2021. “The Luna-25 space project opens a long-term Russian lunar program, which includes missions to study the moon from orbit and surface, the collection and return of lunar soil to Earth, as well as, in the future, the construction of a visited lunar base and full-scale development of our satellite.,” according to a statement from Roscosmos officials.
Russia is no stranger to going the lunar distance as part of the former Soviet Union. Though it did not succeed in putting people on the lunar surface, the latter nation chalked up noteworthy space race firsts from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The Soviet Union was the earliest to send a spacecraft to the moon, perform a flyby of its far side, make a soft landing on its surface, send an orbiter around it and return a circumlunar probe back to Earth, as well as to robotically return lunar samples. And the nation landed the first rover to wheel across the natural satellite’s landscape.
In July Russia’s moon-bound scientific instruments reached the factory floor. The Luna-25 mission and a subsequent moon lander on the books are a partnership between the country and the European Space Agency. Experts say the ambitious Russian return-to-the-moon program is on track so far, but it faces risks, both technical and managerial.
“We’ve all been waiting a long time” for Russia’s reactivation of its moon exploration program, says David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency. Luna-25’s eight Russian science instruments are starting to come together under the auspices of IKI, he says. The lander, headed for the moon’s south pole, is part of a new multinational quest to explore the lunar polar regions and appraise the nature of ice deposits there and their potential as resources for future missions.
Next year’s Luna-25 takeoff “is about re-creating capability that [Russia] had before moving on to more ambitious missions,” Parker points out. Roscomos and the ESA are “learning about each other. Very different organizations and different decision-making approaches. There’s a very hierarchical approach on the Russian side and a high amount of pragmatism on the European side. It’s a very positive working relationship.”
The ESA is on the hook for delivering a small Pilot-D demonstration camera for Luna-25. A similar camera will be a key piece of a precision-landing-and-hazard-avoidance system that the European agency is producing for Russia’s Luna-27, due to launch in 2024. Luna-27 will also carry the ESA’s Prospect drill and a miniature laboratory that, together with another Russian instrument, will search for water ice and other chemicals under the moon’s surface.
“It is very exciting to anticipate Russia’s return to the moon,” says James Head, a space scientist at Brown University. Work on Luna-25 appears to be progressing well despite COVID-19, he says, with no work stoppages reported so far.
After nearly 45 years have lapsed since its last foray to the moon, the Russian space program seems ready to finally mount a return, says Brian Harvey, an independent space analyst and author who diligently tracks that program. “I have a sense that setting the date [of launch] was an attempt to force the issue and make sure it would happen—a psychological self-incentive, as it were.”
“Right off the bat, I have to snicker at the name Luna-25,” says Jay Gallentine, an independent space historian who is sharply focused on robotic solar system exploration. That designation makes it sound like the lander is the latest iteration of a continuous line of moon missions, he says, when, in fact, Luna-24, the previous venture, launched in 1976. Space experts blame the long lag between moon missions on a legacy of intermittent funding, as well as management and quality control issues. There is now a stronger, more effective direction from Russian top officials than at any time since 1991, Harvey says. “Partnering with ESA is a definite attempt to spread costs and bring stability,” he adds. “The Russians have always kept their side of a deal. And once they sign up for something with Europe, it will happen.”
Harvey says the Russians will work hard to get Luna-25 off the ground. “The things that might stop them would be if they uncovered problems during testing or rocket problems,” he says. “In the past couple of years, Russia has delayed missions when these things were not right. But this is a good thing, because they are applying quality control more effectively.”
Software reliability is Gallentine’s primary concern about the Luna-25 mission’s success. “History has shown that spacecraft designers always go through a post-launch period where they are learning how to operate the very machines they built. The Russians do not have a favorable track record with computers and software,” he emphasizes.
The stakes for Luna-25 are high, says Asif Siddiqi, a professor of history at Fordham University who studies Russian space exploration. “Luna-25 is quite paramount. If it fails, I think that will have a domino effect on many other things,” he says. Alternatively, if it is triumphant, the mission could pave the way for a new era in the country’s space program. The forthcoming Luna mission is the first demonstration of that program in a deep-space capacity in decades, Siddiqi says. “I think people are really nervous about it in that sense,” he adds.
Siddiqi cites a quagmire of mismanagement and corruption, along with Russian space ruminations that never match up with the needed rubles, for the long delay. “There’s such a hangover from the Soviet Union times that people are still living the dream of an amazing global space program. But resources and management just [aren’t] there,” he says. “Historically, Russia was a great space power. But there’s an awareness that that’s in the past.”