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Russia's Ambitious LUNA-25 Moon Lander Crashes in Failed Lunar Landing Attempt

Russias' LUNA-25 spacecraft apparently crashed into the lunar surface during a botched orbital maneuver.

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Russia’s dreams of returning to the Moon have been abruptly dashed after its robotic LUNA-25 spacecraft apparently crashed into the lunar surface during a botched orbital maneuver. As the vanguard of Russia’s new era of lunar exploration over 45 years after its last successful Moon landing, LUNA-25 carried high hopes of demonstrating advanced technologies and prospecting for lunar resources. But just days after slipping into orbit around the Moon, the lander made a catastrophic engine burn that sent it straight into the ground below at over 5,600 mph.

The incident deals a major setback for Russia’s space program and scientific ambitions. LUNA-25 was to ignite their new LUNA-Glob series of lunar missions that aimed to study lunar water ice and master precision landing techniques. But shortly after entering its preliminary lunar orbit on September 15th as planned, faulty calculations or commands triggered a disastrous orbital adjustment, dooming the 2,000-pound spacecraft.

A captivating photograph, published by Russia's space agency Roscosmos, captures the moment of liftoff as the Luna-25 spacecraft embarks aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny cosmodrome, nestled in the far eastern reaches of Russia. This historic event unfolded on August 11th, marking a significant stride in space exploration. Roscosmos, via Agence France-Press - Getty Images

After contact was lost during the routine maneuver, Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, suspects LUNA-25 “ceased its existence as a result of a collision with the lunar surface.” With the craft traveling at an estimated 3.3 miles per second, the hard regolith would have instantly obliterated the lunar lander. The causes behind its abrupt demise remain under urgent investigation by an expert commission convened by Roscosmos.

Ambitious Goals to Locate Lunar Ice Deposits

Before its catastrophic end, Russia hoped LUNA-25 would herald a renaissance of robotic lunar exploration to rival past Soviet glories. Its ambitious science and technology demonstration objectives were meant to pave the way for more complex orbital and landing missions.

Using a specialized neutron spectrometer and ground-penetrating radar, LUNA-25’s key goal involved precisely measuring lunar resources, especially scanning for evidence of water ice in permanently shadowed craters near the Moon’s south pole. Finding accessible ice deposits could help establish in-situ resource utilization to support future lunar astronauts and settlements.

An enchanting perspective of the Zeeman crater situated on the moon's far side, as captured by Luna-25 this past Thursday. Photo credit: Roscosmos, via Reuters

The lander’s other cutting-edge instruments were designed to demonstrate advanced autonomous navigation and hazard avoidance techniques for achieving pinpoint lunar landings. Mastering this expertise is considered essential to enable future lunar sample returns, research stations, and crewed missions by ensuring spacecraft can land safely anywhere on the lunar surface within centimeters of targets.

First Lunar Landing Attempt in 45 Years Ends in Tragedy

The loss deals a discouraging blow coming over 45 years after the Soviet Union’s last successful Moon landing. That historic achievement came in 1976 when the robotic LUNA-24 sample return mission safely touched down on the surface, then used an ascent vehicle to bring 170 grams of precious lunar soil back to Earth.

In total, Russia soft-landed on the Moon 9 times between 1966-1976 under its pioneering LUNA program, which achieved many firsts like the inaugural controlled landing of LUNA-9. But not all attempts succeeded in the early high-risk days of lunar exploration. After LUNA-24, budget shortfalls hampered Russia’s lunar efforts for decades until planning began in the 2000s for the ambitious new LUNA-Glob series and its inaugural LUNA-25 spacecraft.

Relative Space Exploration Capabilities Reversed

The demise of LUNA-25 painfully highlights how the balance of space power has shifted since the Soviet days of leadership in lunar firsts. While Russia has struggled to regain deep space capabilities due to economic turmoil, both NASA and China have demonstrated advanced and bold lunar programs.

NASA seeks to land astronauts on the Moon by the mid-2020s under its Artemis program, using innovative commercial launchers and Orion crew capsules. The agency is also planning lunar bases near the south pole aided by private ice mining operations. Meanwhile, an ascendant China has deployed 4 increasingly advanced lunar rovers across the Moon since 2007 using its methodical, long-term Chang’e program.

In contrast, Russia’s loss of LUNA-25 leaves its lunar aspirations in limbo, hoping to learn lessons that allow efforts like the planned LUNA-26 orbiter and LUNA-27 lander to eventually move forward. But Russia's dreams of a triumphant return to the Moon have been postponed after LUNA-25 met a disastrous fate.

Global Push to Establish Lunar Bases Accelerating

The disappointment comes as an accelerating race unfolds between space agencies and private companies worldwide to access lunar resources and achieve scientific firsts. NASA has partnered with allies like Canada, Japan, and Europe who will contribute key elements to its plan under Artemis for permanent lunar orbital habitats and research stations.

China is also methodically advancing toward crewed CNSA Moon landings proposed by the late 2020s. Its upcoming sample return and south pole landing missions will further expand capabilities. More countries including India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia unveil lunar programs yearly, aiming to reap scientific and economic rewards potentially worth trillions on and around the Moon in the coming decades.

For Russia, the loss of LUNA-25 represents a worrisome gap as other nations sprint ahead in capabilities required for surviving and thriving off-planet. But its legacy could be preventing similar accidents on other countries’ lunar missions by thoroughly investigating root causes for public benefit.

Meticulous Reviews to Enhance Future Mission Safety

While the mysterious failure represents a short-term setback, Russia's space program has rebounded from bigger tragedies before, like the disastrous 1961 Soyuz 1 mission that killed a cosmonaut. Rigorous accident reviews yield valuable insights that improve training, designs, manufacturing, and quality control processes.

NASA has shared key lessons with Russia over decades of cooperation, enhancing safety for both nations. Joint reviews of Progress cargo vehicle failures in 2011 and 2015 aided improvements benefiting the Soyuz system. By diligently applying insights from LUNA-25’s demise, Russia aims to resume lunar flight on solid footing, avoiding past errors.

Spacefaring nations also gain mutual benefit when mishaps are shared transparently so all can avoid repeating preventable mistakes. While LUNA-25's loss currently slows Russian lunar plans, findings from its hard impact could boost lunar mission safety across the world. Russia deserves credit if it reveals the full LUNA-25 story for the benefit of humanity’s greater lunar aspirations.

Ambitious Future Missions Depend on LUNA-25 Lessons

Despite its tragic end, LUNA-25 accomplished the vital task of reaching lunar orbit and returning engineering data to aid upcoming missions. Russia had invested over $70 million into the lander and its research instruments, representing a decade of scarce R&D funding. While the crash deals a painful setback, lessons learned can now improve the designs and operations planned for other ambitious LUNA-Glob spacecraft like the lunar south pole lander LUNA-27.

With countries competing in a new "Moon race", reliability and precision are essential to avoid crashes and maximize scientific returns on costly missions. Russia's priority is now determining how their much-anticipated lunar return went suddenly awry last week. Only after fully probing LUNA-25's failure can they resume robotic lunar flight on solid footing, applying hard-won insights to avoid past errors.

The crash offers a reminder that space remains infinitely hazardous, though tragedy can gift knowledge that prevents future disasters. Russia deserves praise if it reveals LUNA-25's full story for the benefit of its space program and explorers worldwide chasing dreams of thriving on the Moon and beyond. By converting heartbreak into wisdom, Russia and its partners can pioneer space successfully, upholding the valiant legacy of those who dared progress humanity's cosmic horizons.


Summarised from the article by By Kenneth Chang, Alina Lobzina and Anton Troianovski for nytimes.com

World NewsLUNA 25RoscosmosRussian Space Mission 2023Lunar Ice DepositsRussian Space MissionsVladimir PutinRussia

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