A Soyuz 2.1b rocket lifts off with the Luna 25 mission from the launchpad at Vostochny Cosmodrome, August 11, 2023. Roscosmos. | Image credit: AP
Story so far: On August 11, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, launched the Luna 25 spacecraft on a Soyuz 2 rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Luna 25 includes a lander and its mission to the soft land near the moon’s south pole, and there to study the optical, physical and chemical properties of lunar dust, lunar soil and atmosphere.
But on August 20, Roscosmos released a statement that Luna 25 malfunctioned and crashed to the lunar surface the day before, ending the mission in failure. While the event attests to the various challenges of an automated landing of a robotic instrument on the moon, the fate of Luna 25 also speaks volumes about more than technical issues.
Why did Russia launch Luna 25?
The Luna 25 mission has technically been in the works for over two decades. For about the first decade, it was called Luna-Glob; The name was later changed to make the mission part of the Luna series, its final version, Luna 24, launched in 1976. In its statement after Luna 25’s failure. failed, Roscosmos said one of the reasons for launching the mission was to “ensure Russia’s access to the lunar surface” – alluding to the moon’s growing importance as a destination for satellites. spaceflight and its importance as one of the sites of dispute between the US and China.
While Russia and China are jointly leading the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), compared to the US-led Artemis Agreement, Russia has not successfully conducted an interplanetary mission in 34 years. via. Some experts also suggest that Russia intends Luna 25 to be President Vladimir Putin’s demonstration that the country’s economy – including the aerospace sector – is not buckling under the weight of sanctions. after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2021.
Are Luna 25 and Chandrayaan 3 in a race?
Contrary to popular belief, there are too many misleading details to suggest that Luna 25 and Chandrayaan 3, or Roscosmos and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), are in a race. Both missions launched in a similar time frame and are expected to attempt a soft landing on the moon within days of each other.
However, these mission parameters are determined by the launch vehicle, the spacecraft’s mass, the earth-moon orbit, and the availability of sunlight at a point on the moon (to provide energy for solar panels).
Also, while Chandrayaan 3 has been in development since 2019, Roscosmos has been working on Luna 25 since the early 2010s and the fate of Chandrayaan 2 could not be foreseen. Both missions also suffered unpredictable delays. due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, recall that Russia withdrew from building the Chandrayaan 2 lander due to delays caused by the failure of the previous ship’s Fobos-Grunt mission in 2011. On the other hand, Russia was once a partner of the ship. ISRO and is also helping train Indian astronauts for the first Gaganyaan mission.
Taken together, Luna 25 and Chandrayaan 3 cannot enter a race.
What happened to Luna 25?
In a statement following the incident, Roscosmos said that it would form a committee to investigate the exact cause of the Luna 25 failure. In addition, Roscosmos only said that the spacecraft had technical problems that caused its operation to exceed the allowed parameters. The mission is designed to work. Although this statement is vague, it also suggests that the failure is related to some kind of extreme.
Speculation on social media platforms by experts in space travel centered on one event: when Luna 25 attempted to modify its circular orbit around the moon to a lower orbit before landing, it exerted more thrust than necessary, sending it to the surface. Roscosmos itself lost contact with Luna 25 while it was performing this operation.
Why can’t Roscosmos rescue Luna 25?
ISRO is receiving help from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to track Chandrayaan 3 around the moon. Their antenna will also maintain contact with the lander ‘Vikram’ as it attempts to make a soft landing on August 23. But after Russia invaded Ukraine, the country lost the goodwill of many nations. worldwide, leading to severe economic sanctions.
One of the lesser-known consequences is that Russia also lost the privilege of using satellite tracking systems operated by countries in different parts of the world. Thus, Roscosmos can communicate with Luna 25 and receive signals from the spacecraft, at only three stations: two in Russia and one in Russian-occupied Crimea.
In other words, Roscosmos can only communicate with Luna 25 when the moon is directly above Russia. As a result, the size of the window through which scientists have to troubleshoot and salvage the mission is much smaller.
This said, they tried to contact the lander in this window but it is not responding. More details will be available in the bug analysis report.
What’s next for Roscosmos and Russia?
Whatever the technical reason for the failure of Luna 25, it is clear that Russia is falling behind in the race to the moon. Before ILRS, Russia worked with NASA to build a space station near the moon. But before pulling out of the partnership in January 2021, Roscosmos’ role in the business was said to be very limited.
During the establishment of the ILRS, Roscosmos planned the Luna 26 and 27 missions as part of the first operational phase, which included demonstrations of technology and site selection for future landing missions. future.
Now, with the failure of Luna 25 and the sanctions imposed by Western countries – which will limit the components Russia can import – their respective launch dates could be pushed further from the year. 2027 and 2028.