According to Roscosmos, the robotic Luna-25 spacecraft looked to have “ceased its existence” after a failed orbital correction.
A Russian robotic spacecraft on its way to the moon’s surface has crashed into the moon, Russia’s space agency reported on Sunday, citing early inquiry results a day after losing communication with the ship.
It is the latest failure in spaceflight for a country that, as the Soviet Union, was the first to place a satellite, a man, and subsequently a woman in orbit during the Cold War.
The Luna-25 lander, Russia’s first space launch to the moon’s surface since the 1970s, was launched into lunar orbit last Wednesday and was scheduled to arrive as soon as Monday. According to Roscosmos, the state organization in charge of Russia’s space activities, the spacecraft fired its engine at 2:10 p.m. on Saturday afternoon Moscow time to enter an orbit suitable for a lunar landing. However, an unspecified “emergency situation” arose.
Roscosmos announced on that it had lost touch with the spacecraft 47 minutes after the engine started operating. Attempts to re-establish communications were unsuccessful, and Luna-25 deviated from its scheduled orbit and “ceased its existence as a result of a collision with the lunar surface,” according to Roscosmos.
It was also said that an interagency commission will be constituted to study the causes for the failure.
The Luna-25 mission, which launched on August 11, aimed to be the first to reach the moon’s south polar region. Government space projects and business companies from all around the world are interested in that portion of the moon because they believe it contains water ice that astronauts could use in the future.
The primary goal of Luna-25 was to test technologies for moon landings, and the loss of the lander at a less dangerous phase of the project will draw attention to Russia’s space challenges.
The two most nerve-racking times for missions to the moon’s surface are the rocket launch from Earth and the landing itself. Three lunar landing efforts in the last four years have all been successful, with India, an Israeli nonprofit, and a Japanese firm all successfully maneuvering in orbit around the moon before failing during the final few minutes of descent to the surface.
When missions are lost during orbital engine firings, bad manufacturing and inadequate testing are frequently to blame. These flaws contributed to the collapse of Russia’s last significant robotic interplanetary spacecraft, Phobos-Grunt, in 2011. Another issue could be embarrassing human error, such as when NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere in 1999 due to a metric-to-imperial conversion error.
The mission’s failure might be a setback for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has leveraged Russia’s triumphs in space to cement his grip on power.
That is part of the Kremlin’s narrative, which many Russians find compelling: Russia is a great nation held back by an American-led West jealous of and intimidated by Russia’s potential. Russia’s state-run space sector, in particular, has proven to be a key tool in the country’s efforts to reshape its geopolitical connections.
“The interest in our proposals is very high,” Yuri Borisov, the chief of Russia’s space program, told Mr. Putin in a televised meeting in June, explaining Russia’s plan to increase space cooperation with African countries. The project is part of the Kremlin’s broader efforts to strengthen economic and political connections with non-Western countries in the face of European and American sanctions.
Russia’s exploration of the Earth’s solar system has declined significantly since the Soviet era.
The last unqualified victory occurred more than 35 years ago, when the Soviet Union remained intact. Vega 1 and Vega 2 were twin spacecraft that launched six days apart. Six months later, the two spacecraft passed by Venus, each releasing a capsule containing a lander that safely landed on the hellish planet’s surface, as well as a balloon that drifted through the atmosphere when released. The two spacecraft then approached within 5,000 miles of Halley’s comet in March 1986, capturing photos and examining the dust and gas from the comet’s nucleus.
Following expeditions to Mars, launched in 1988 and 1996, both failed.
The humiliating low point occurred in 2011 with the Phobos-Grunt mission, which was scheduled to land on Phobos, Mars’ bigger moon, and return samples of rock and dirt to Earth. However, Phobos-Grunt never left Earth’s orbit because the engines that were supposed to take it to Mars failed to activate. It was destroyed in the Earth’s atmosphere a few months later.
An investigation later revealed that Russia’s cash-strapped space agency had cut corners on production and testing, relying on electronics that had not been proven to withstand the cold and radiation of space.
Otherwise, Russia has been limited to low-Earth orbit, including transporting humans to and from the International Space Station, which it runs in collaboration with NASA.
Luna-25 was scheduled to execute a one-year mission to investigate the composition of the lunar surface. It was also supposed to demonstrate technologies that would be used in a series of robotic trips to the moon that Russia hopes to deploy to lay the basis for a future lunar outpost that it plans to establish alongside China.
However, the calendar for those missions — Luna 26, 27, and 28 — has already slid years from the initial plan, and further delays are expected, especially as Russia’s space program struggles financially and technologically as a result of sanctions imposed by the US.
Roscosmos will have to decide whether to retry the Luna-25 mission or to leave the landing technology untested for the time being and move on to more ambitious follow-on missions. If Russia decides to re-fly the Luna-25, it will certainly add years to the delay.
Although NASA and the European Space Agency continue to work with Russia on the International Space Station, other cooperation space projects were halted following Ukraine’s invasion. That means Russia will have to replace essential components that were supposed to arrive from Europe, such as the drill for the Luna-27 lander.
Russia has struggled to build new space technology, particularly electronics that can function reliably in the extreme environment of space.
“We cannot fly in space, or at least not for a long time, without better electronics,” said Anatoly Zak, publisher of RussianSpaceWeb.com, which covers Russia’s space efforts. “All Soviet electronics were backwards. They were continually lagging behind the West in science and technology.”
He went on to say, “The entire Russian space program is actually affected by this issue.”
Other ambitious Russian space missions are likewise behind schedule and will most likely take considerably longer to accomplish than the official announcements.
Angara, a rocket family in development for two decades, has only launched six times.
Vladimir Kozhevnikov, Russia’s lead designer for the next space station, told Interfax a few days ago that Oryol, a modern replacement for the ancient Soyuz capsule, will make its maiden voyage in 2028.
Dmitry Rogozin, then the head of Roscosmos, stated in 2020 that the first flight of Oryol will take place in 2023, implying that the launch schedule had slipped five years in just three years.
Another country, India, will now get the opportunity to land the first probe near the lunar south pole. Its Chandrayaan-3 mission launched in July, although it took a more circuitous but more fuel-efficient path to the moon. It is planned to make a landing attempt on Wednesday.
“It’s unfortunate,” Indian Space Research Organization spokesman Sudheer Kumar said of the Russian lander’s collapse. “Every space mission is extremely dangerous and technically demanding.”