Russia’s bid to return to the Moon comes to an ignominious end

A RASH OF small, fresh craters across the lunar surface testifies to the international rush to return to the Moon by means of robot spacecraft. In April 2019 the gyroscopes on Beresheet, built by a public-private Israeli partnership, failed during the craft’s descent towards a patch of Mare Serenitatis, causing it to crash. In September that year Chandrayaan-2, a mission by the Indian space agency, ISRO, departed from trajectory towards its landing site, not far from the Moon’s south pole. The result was what ISRO’s chief called “a hard landing”—one sufficiently hard for the probe to have never been heard from again. This April a mission by ispace, a Japanese company, ended shortly after the HAKUTO-R spacecraft decided that it had reached the surface of Mare Frigoris while still 5km above it, and turned off its engines. The Moon’s gravity is weaker than the Earth’s, but not by so much that a spacecraft can weather a fall from that distance.

On the morning of August 20th Russia announced that it had joined the ranks of the new crater-makers. Its Luna 25 mission, launched on August 11th, entered orbit around the Moon on August 16th. It was due to undertake its landing five days later. But on August 19th, just after its controllers had told it to adjust its orbit in preparation, contact with the probe was lost. On the morning of August 20th Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, announced that “a deviation between the actual and calculated parameters of the propulsion manoeuvre led the Luna 25 spacecraft to enter an undesignated orbit and it ceased to exist following a collision with the surface of the Moon”.

The Russian failure has to be seen as far more embarrassing than those that came before it. Though the Soviet Union, from which Russia’s space programme derives, never landed people on the Moon, as America did, it was capable of mounting sophisticated missions involving long-duration rovers and rockets that would return samples of the lunar surface to Earth. For Russia to be unable to manage a much simpler mission 50 years later—indeed, for it not even to get to the difficult descent stage, but to mess things up in orbit—shows how far its capabilities have fallen.

Nor is this a one-off. Russia has failed to mount any successful missions beyond Earth’s orbit since the fall of the Soviet Union. Its space programme has other problems, too. Long a supplier of relatively cheap, reliable launches for commercial satellites, Russia struggled to compete with the rise of SpaceX and its highly dependable, reusable rockets even before its invasion of Ukraine subjected it to international sanctions. And when SpaceX demonstrated the capacity to fly astronauts in its Dragon 2 spacecraft, Russia’s role as the only country with the wherewithal to get people to and from the International Space Station went by the wayside.

Back around the Moon, all eyes are now on Chandrayaan-3, which its operators at ISRO hope will succeed where its predecessor failed. Launched on July 14th, the Indian craft arrived in orbit around the Moon three weeks later. It then set about lowering and circularising its orbit in preparation for a touchdown attempt on August 23rd, in the same region that Chandrayaan-2 had been headed for. Though the details of what went wrong that time have never been made public, it is reasonable to assume that ISRO would have satisfied itself that there will be no repeat. (That said, the discovery of new ways for things to go wrong is, for observers at least, one of the constant fascinations of space exploration.)

If the Chandrayaan-3 controllers deliver a satisfactorily soft landing on August 23rd, it will make India just the fourth country, after America, the Soviet Union and China, to have landed on the Moon. The achievement will be widely celebrated in India. And if the failure of the Russian mission—which some suspect was rushed to pip India at the post—adds an extra piquancy to the outburst of national pride, that will be quite understandable.

Either way, the spate of Moon missions will not let up. August 26th will see the launch of SLIM, a mission by the Japanese space agency which aims to carry out the country’s first Moon landing with pinpoint accuracy. Then, in November or December, America’s robot scientists will begin their return with the launch of a spacecraft built by Intuitive Machines, a Texas-based startup, that aims to land a set of payloads from NASA very close to the Moon’s south pole. Further American missions are planned for 2024; so, it appears, is a new Chinese mission, as well as another landing attempt by ispace. It is fair to expect a lot more interesting data, and maybe a few more craters, too.

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