After Russia launched its mission to the moon called Luna 25 on August 11, 2023 (Indian Standard Time), there has been a lot of discussion that it may mark the beginning of a new space race. This is the country’s first lunar lander mission in 47 years. It could even be viewed as the first Russian mission to the moon since all the earlier missions were undertaken during the Soviet era.
According to the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Luna 25 is likely to reach the moon in five days and remain in the lunar orbit for five to seven days before attempting a soft landing on the lunar surface. The agency has already narrowed down on two or three potential landing spots which are close to the south pole of the moon. These sites are within a 15-km wide and 30-km long area. If successful, the mission will last for one year and involve undertaking various observations and scientific experiments. It may be noted that the lunar south pole is a big area and none of these landing zones are ‘dissecting’ the proposed landing site for India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission.
The mission’s Luna-Glob-Lander weighs around 800 kg (plus 950 kg of fuel), and has four legs with landing rockets, fuel tanks and solar panels. It has been designed to study the composition of the moon’s south polar soil, the plasma and dust present in the very thin lunar exosphere. As per reports, Luna 25’s lander (there is no rover unit like Chandrayaan-3) has a robotic arm, which can move in different directions and is equipped with a scoop to collect lunar samples. There are various other instruments to study the samples and the lunar exosphere.
The robotic arm has a tool (4.7 cm-long tube) and scooper to hold nearly 175 cubic cm of material. The lander has eight scientific tools to collect data and undertake experimentation. Broadly, assessments like measuring the gamma rays and neutrons coming from the surface of the moon, measuring water content on the moon’s surface, and studying the composition and thermal proteins of the regolith (lunar dust) would be undertaken.
While India embarked on its quest for the moon with the launch of the Chandrayaan-1 in 2008, Russia (as the erstwhile Soviet Union) is an old player. The Luna Program’s first mission was in 1959. Subsequently, 24 other missions were carried out until 1976 – including some failures. All these missions had different goals: flyby missions, missions involving the craft orbiting the moon and some soft landings.
Some news reports have noted that though Russia’s mission was launched after India, it is expected to “beat” the Chandrayaan mission by reaching the lunar surface faster. It needs to be noted that the Soviet Union had already accomplished many ‘firsts’ in this domain. They were the first to undertake a flyby mission of the moon, to have a lunar satellite and to have an impact (drop equipment to reach the lunar surface) on the moon.
Interestingly, during the Chandrayaan-1 mission on November 14, 2008, India also dropped the Moon Impact Probe on the moon’s surface. India became the first country to do this on the south pole of the moon.
The Soviets were also the first to take photographs of the far side of the moon. They also achieved the first lunar soft landing, deployed a lunar rover and undertook an analysis of lunar soil. In addition, they also brought back the first lunar sample to the Earth.
Apart from the Luna Program, the Soviets also had a program called Zond, which looked at the moon, Mars, and Venus. This robotic spacecraft programme (1964-1970) had two spacecraft series, one for interplanetary exploration, and the other for lunar exploration. One very interesting aspect of this programme was that during the Zond 5 mission, the first terrestrial organisms – two tortoises and some other lifeforms – survived their journey around the moon in a capsule and returned to Earth.
During the Cold War period, the Soviets and the US competed for superior space technology. The Soviets demonstrated their capability by becoming the first nation to send a satellite to space (Sputnik, 1957), and the first human to space (Yuri Gagarin, 1957). However, they were defeated by the US in manned lunar missions (starting with Apollo 11 in 1969). Unfortunately, the Soviet Union (or Russia) was not able to undertake a human mission to the moon. Their human lunar programme was kept secret and details of it were made public only in 1990. The Zond programme had some focus on developing a human lunar programme. In addition, from 1969 to 1972, they undertook four tests (all unsuccessful) of the N1/L3 rocket, a super heavy-lift launch vehicle, possibly the Soviet counterpart to the US Saturn V, which was used for the manner moon mission.
Today, by naming its mission to the moon “Luna 25”, Russia is clearly demonstrating that it wants to carry forward the Soviet space legacy. Russia understands that its cosiness with the US in the domain of space – which began post-Cold War with collaboration on the International Space Station (ISS) – has no future owing to the Ukraine crisis. In 2021, Russia and China unveiled their roadmap to send humans to the moon by building an International Lunar Research Station.
In the 21st-century space race, the Russians are late starters and may not be able to match the ambitions of the US or China in taking humans to the moon. However, Russia could try to regain some of its past glory by collaborating with friendly nations like China and Iran.
Ajey Lele researches space issues and is the author of the book Institutions That Shaped Modern India: ISRO.