Russia aims to revive lunar program with launch of lunar lander in July

Russia is ready to reactivate its lunar exploration program, a former Soviet Union endeavor that ended decades ago. The last in the series of pioneering Soviet robotic lunar missions was Luna 24, which sent about 6 ounces (170 grams) of moon material back on Earth in 1976.

Russia’s planned Luna 25 mission is expected to launch a sequence of lunar sorties that also involves Europe and China. For example, Russia intends to collaborate with China on the International Lunar Research Station, which should be operational by 2035.

Russia’s revival of its lunar exploration goals would clearly be bolstered by the success of Moon 25a lander mission scheduled for launch in July.

But how Russia and China’s lunar exploration plans will really materialize, and how this partnership could influence NASA’s lunar “reboot” via its Artemis program, are unclear.

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Technicians work with hardware for Luna 25, a mission that will mark Russia's robotic return to the moon.

Technicians work with hardware for Luna 25, a mission that will mark Russia’s robotic return to the moon. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

Main destination

Luna 25 will be launched atop a Soyuz-2.1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage from the Vostochny spaceport in the Russian Far East. The probe’s primary destination is the moon’s south polar region, specifically a location north of the Boguslavsky Crater. (An area southwest of Manzini Crater is a save location).

Russia’s NPO Lavochkin, a spacecraft construction company, built the lander, which is billed as an exploratory probe to test soft-touch technologies in the moon’s circumpolar region and conduct south pole contact studies lunar.

Pavel Kazmerchuk, chief designer of Luna 25 at Lavochkin, said all scientific instruments have been installed on the spacecraft. Electro-radio engineering tests are currently underway and will be completed in March. On-board software development for the machine is expected to be completed in April.

But Luna 25’s road to the moon has not been easy. Problems with testing the nearly 2-tonne spacecraft caused slippages from an October 2021 to May 2022 liftoff, and now the craft is being readied for a ‘preferred’ July 23 departure. .

“In 2021, the Luna 25 spacecraft was fully assembled; a large number of experimental ground tests have been carried out. The spacecraft is to be launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the launch window from May 25 to October 19, 2022, but we are aiming for July,” Dmitry Rogozin, CEO of Roscosmosthe Russian federal space agency, said last month in a statement.

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Luna 25's primary destination is the moon's south pole, north of Boguslavsky Crater.

Luna 25’s primary destination is the moon’s south pole, north of Boguslavsky Crater. (Image credit: NASA/Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LROC)/Arizona State University)

Main tasks

Luna 25 is designed to operate on the surface of the moon for at least a year, using a suite of sensors to study the lunar top and the dust and particles in the the tenuous atmosphere of the moonor exosphere.

According to Lavochkin, Luna 25 has three main tasks: to develop soft landing technology; study the internal structure and exploration of natural resources, including water, in the circumpolar region of the moon; and study the effects of cosmic rays and electromagnetic radiation on the surface of the moon.

The lander carries eight Russian instruments, including a robotic arm for picking up lunar regolith, and one developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) – a camera called Pilot-D, a demonstration terrain relative navigation system.

talent and experience

James Head, a geoscientist in the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University in Rhode Island, is looking forward to the Luna 25 mission.

“It’s really great to look forward to the launch, landing and operations of Luna 25 in the moon’s south polar region later this year, and to see Russian scientists and engineers bringing their vast array of talents and skills to the table. experience in the active arena of lunar exploration,” Head told Space.com.

“It will be many years before other countries can replicate the decades of groundbreaking robotic lunar exploration accomplished by our Russian colleagues more than 40 years ago, with robotic lunar rovers and three sample return missions,” Head said.

Luna 27 will deploy the European Space Agency-provided Prospect drill that will search for water ice and other compounds beneath the lunar terrain.

Luna 27 will deploy the European Space Agency-provided Prospect drill that will search for water ice and other compounds beneath the lunar terrain. (Image credit: NPO Lavochkine)

follow-up assignments

According to ESA, the Luna 26 orbiter should be launched two years after Luna 25. Luna 26 will perform remote scientific measurements and serve as a possible communication relay for the next lander mission. It will relay the data to ground stations on Earth, including ESA’s network of ground stations.

The Luna 27 lander will launch a year after Luna 26 and will be larger than its predecessor, Luna 25. It will fly to a hard landing site closer to the lunar south pole using European Pilot technology as its primary navigation system. Luna 27 will deploy the ESA-provided Prospect drill that will search for water ice and other compounds beneath the lunar terrain.

Currently, NPO Lavochkin is preparing a Luna 28 project for the delivery of lunar soil from the southern polar region, an effort that is also designed to continue subsequent expeditions to deploy a lunar base.

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Artist's impression of a planned cooperative effort involving China and Russia, the International Lunar Research Station.

Artist’s impression of a planned cooperative effort involving China and Russia, the International Lunar Research Station. (Image credit: CNSA/Roscosmos)

Roadmap to the moon

Last year, Rogozin and Zhang Kejian, the head of China’s National Space Administration (CNSA), signed a memorandum of cooperation to begin orchestrating a International scientific moon station.

An early roadmap for the lunar outpost calls for a complex of experimental research facilities — on the lunar surface and/or in lunar orbit — to perform tasks that make a long-term human presence on the moon possible. .

China launched the research station project with Russia, also initiating the Sino-Russian Joint Data Center for Lunar and Deep Space Exploration. China is working with Russia to coordinate its 2024 Chang’e 7 lunar polar exploration mission with Russian Luna 26 orbiter mission.

Competitive game?

It’s good news that the moon is getting more attention, said Clive Neal, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Like Head, Neal is an authority on lunar science and exploration. Neal sees encouraging signs that a robust economy will develop in Earth-Moon space – one that could be a model for doing similar things elsewhere in the solar system. But it also raised a number of concerns.

“The problem we have looking at Russia and China – it seems like a competitive game being played out,” Neal told Space.com. “Hopefully it’s going to be a cooperative effort rather than something competitive in nature.”

That said, Neal would like to see final plans from NASA for a lunar station. The US agency said it intended to build a research outpost on the Moon through its Artemis programbut details remain scarce at this time.

“NASA must take seriously its base camp map, because I don’t think that’s the case right now,” Neal said. “There’s a lot of bluster about the sustained human presence on the moon, but what does that mean? It doesn’t mean permanent.”

Take the moon seriously

Neal said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that 2022 will be a great year for lunar exploration. Some of the optimism stems from plans by American companies to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.

“They’re cutting metal now. They’ve got payloads. They’ve got contracts. And they have to deliver,” Neal said. “I hope NASA takes this opportunity as something to build into bigger and better things.”

But Neal added that the US space agency “needs to get serious about the moon…and Congress needs to provide the funding for NASA to get serious.”

What is missing today is a resource prospecting campaign, international in character, Neal said. “If you don’t do the hard work and prospecting, you’ll never know if lunar resources can be used to do what some say they will be used to do.”

Lunar exploration planners must also define and implement a resource exploration campaign, Neal added. It is still unclear how such a campaign will work and who will coordinate it.

“If NASA had an Artemis program office, maybe that would be a good place for it. Hope you understand my sense of frustration,” Neal said.

Neal said he wished China, Russia, NASA and all American commercial groups good luck in their lunar endeavours. “If we all came together to do this for the good of all humanity, then I think we would be in good shape,” he concluded.

Leonard David is the author of “Moon Rush: The New Space Race” (National Geographic, 2019). A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom Or on Facebook.

Ryan H. Bowman