The Russian moon lander Luna-25 is lost in a crash

A Russian robotic spacecraft bound for the moon’s surface has crashed on the lunar surface, Russia’s space agency said Sunday, citing the results of a preliminary investigation a day after contact with the vehicle was lost.

This is the final setback in spaceflight for a country that during the Cold War became the first country, like the Soviet Union, to put a satellite, a man, and then a woman into orbit.

The Luna-25 lander, the first Russian spacecraft to reach the lunar surface since the 1970s, entered lunar orbit last Wednesday and was supposed to land early Monday. At 2:10 a.m. on Saturday Moscow time, according to Roscosmos, the government institution that oversees Russia’s space activities, the spacecraft fired its engine to enter an orbit that would prepare it for landing on the lunar surface. But an unexplained “emergency” occurred.

On Sunday, Roscosmos said it lost contact with the spacecraft 47 minutes after starting the engine. Attempts to re-establish communications failed, Roscosmos said, and Luna-25 deviated from its planned orbit and “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface.”

She added that an inter-agency committee would be formed to investigate the reasons for the failure.

Luna-25, which launched on Aug. 11, was intended to be the first mission to reach the lunar south pole region. Government space programs and private companies around the Earth are interested in this part of the Moon because they believe it may contain water ice that astronauts can use in the future.

Luna-25’s main purpose was to test moon landing technology, and the loss of the lander during a less critical phase of the mission will add more scrutiny to Russia’s space struggles.

For missions to the lunar surface, the most nerve-wracking moments are the rocket launch from Earth and the landing itself. Three lunar landing attempts in the past four years – by India, an Israeli non-profit organization and a Japanese company – all succeeded in maneuvering into lunar orbit before failing within the last few minutes to descend to the surface.

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When missions are lost during orbital engine launches, shoddy manufacturing and inadequate testing often turns out to be the cause. These shortcomings were the basis for the failure of Russia’s last large robotic interplanetary probe, Phobos-Grunt, in 2011. Another factor could be embarrassing human error, such as when NASA’s Mars orbiter probe burned up in the Martian atmosphere in 1999 due to Mix- between metric and imperial units.

The failure of the mission could be a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who has used Russia’s achievements in space as an integral part of his grip on power.

This is part of the Kremlin’s narrative – and it is a compelling one for many Russians – that Russia is a great country held back by a US-led West that is jealous of Russia’s capabilities and threat. The state-run space industry in particular has been a valuable tool as Russia works to reshape its geopolitical relations.

“The interest in our proposals is very high,” the head of Russia’s space program, Yuri Borisov, told Mr. Putin in a televised meeting in June, describing Russia’s plan to expand space cooperation with African countries. This initiative comes within the framework of the Kremlin’s comprehensive efforts to deepen economic and political relations with non-Western countries amid European and American sanctions.

In recent decades, Russia’s exploration of the Earth’s solar system has come far from the heights of the Soviet era.

The last unconditional success was more than 35 years ago, when the Soviet Union was still intact. A pair of twin spacecraft, Vega 1 and Vega 2, were launched six days apart. Six months later, the two spacecraft flew over Venus, each dropping a capsule containing a lander that successfully landed on the surface of the infernal planet, as well as a balloon that, when launched, floated through the atmosphere. In March 1986, the two spacecraft passed within about 5,000 miles of Halley’s comet, taking pictures and studying the dust and gas from the comet’s nucleus.

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Subsequent flights to Mars launched in 1988 and 1996 failed.

The awkward perigee came in 2011 with Phobos-Grunt, which was supposed to land on Phobos, the largest of Mars’ two moons, and return rock and dirt samples to Earth. But Phobos-Grunt never left Earth’s orbit after the engines that would have sent it to Mars did not fire. A few months later, it burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

An investigation later revealed that the cash-strapped Russian space agency had skimped on manufacturing and testing, using electronic components not proven to survive the cold and radiation of space.

Otherwise, Russia has been limited to low Earth orbit, including ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which it operates jointly with NASA.

Luna-25 was to have completed a one-year mission to study the composition of the lunar surface. It was also supposed to have demonstrated technologies that could have been used in a series of robotic missions that Russia plans to launch to the moon to lay the foundation for a future lunar base it plans to build with China.

But the schedule for those missions — Luna 26, 27 and 28 — has already been years behind the original schedule, and now more delays are likely, especially as Russia’s space program struggles financially and technologically, due to sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Roscosmos will face a difficult decision whether to return the Luna-25 mission or leave landing technology untested for now and move on to more ambitious follow-up missions. If Russia decides to fly the Luna-25 back, that would likely add additional years of delay.

Although NASA and the European Space Agency continued to collaborate with Russia on the International Space Station, other joint space projects ended after the invasion of Ukraine. For lunar missions, this means that Russia needs to replace major components that were due to come from Europe, including drills for the Luna-27 lander.

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Russia has struggled to develop new space devices, especially electronic ones that work reliably in the extreme conditions of outer space.

said Anatoly Zak, who publishes RussianSpaceWeb.com, which tracks Russia’s space activities. Soviet electronics has always lagged behind. They have always been behind the West in this field of science and technology.

“The entire Russian space program is already affected by this problem,” he added.

Other ambitious Russian space plans are also behind schedule and will likely take much longer than official announcements to complete.

Angara, the family of missiles developed two decades ago, has only launched six times.

A few days ago, Vladimir Kozhevnikov, chief designer of the upcoming Russian space station, told the Interfax news agency that Oryol, a modern replacement for the venerable Soyuz capsule, It will make its first flight in 2028.

Back in 2020, Dmitry Rogozin, then head of Roscosmos, said the first Oryol flight would take place in 2023 — meaning that in just three years, the launch date has slipped five years.

Another country, India, will now have the opportunity to land the first probe in the vicinity of the moon’s south pole. Its Chandrayaan-3 mission launched in July, but has chosen a more circuitous but fuel-efficient trajectory to the moon. It is scheduled to attempt a landing on Wednesday.

“It is unfortunate,” said Sudhir Kumar, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, of the crash of the Russian lander. “Every space mission is very risky and technical.”

Harry Kumar Contributed to reporting from Delhi.

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