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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Russia’s first robotic moon mission in nearly 50 years ends in failure

Russia’s Luna-25 probe crashed Saturday on the moon after a thruster firing went awry, cutting off communications and putting the spacecraft in the wrong orbit, the Russian space agency announced Sunday.

The misfire followed problems with an earlier orbit adjustment “burn,” but this time around, contact was lost and flight controllers were unable to re-establish communications. Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, announced the failure via the Telegram social media platform.

“Due to the deviation of the actual parameters of the impulse (rocket firing) from the calculated ones, the device (spacecraft) switched to an off-design orbit and ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface,” the Russian-language post said, according to Google Translate.

The failure was a major disappointment for the Russian space program, which was attempting to up its game amid renewed interest in the moon’s south polar region where ice deposits may exist in permanently shadowed craters. Ice offers a potential in situ source of air, water and even hydrogen rocket fuel for future astronauts.

NASA’s Artemis program plans to send astronauts to the south polar region in the next few years and China is working on plans to launch its own astronauts, or “taikonauts,” to the moon’s south pole around the end of the decade.

India also has ambitious plans. It’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft, consisting of a robotic lander named Vikram and a small rover named Pragyan, is in orbit around the moon and on track to touch down on the lunar surface Wednesday. The mission is a follow-up to Chandrayaan-2, which crashed to the moon in 2019 because of a software error.

Luna-25 was launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome atop a Soyuz 2.1b rocket on August 10. It enter lunar orbit six days later, targeting a landing Monday, beating Chandrayaan-3 to the surface by two days. But it was not to be.

The Russians have had little success with planetary exploration since the Luna-24 robot landed on the moon in 1976, scooped up about six ounces of lunar soil and returned it to Earth. That was Russia’s third successful robotic lunar sample return mission.

Twelve NASA astronauts walked on the moon a half century ago in the agency’s Apollo program, but no Russian cosmonauts ever made the trip. Russia’s only previous post-Soviet deep space robotic missions, both targeting Mars, ended in failure.

Luna-25 was an attempt to pick up the torch, putting Russia back in a new space race of sorts as the United States, China, India, Japan and the private sector are planning multiple moon missions that could lay the foundations for lunar bases and eventual flights to Mars.

The next U.S. flight to the moon is a commercial mission funded by NASA. Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander could launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket late this year. Another commercial lander, Astrobotic’s Peregrine, will launch atop a new Vulcan rocket late this year or early next.

The next piloted flight to the moon, Artemis 2, is scheduled for launch late next year, sending four astronauts on a looping trajectory around the moon and back.

The first Artemis moon landing, putting two astronauts on the surface near the lunar south pole, is officially planned for late 2025, but time needed to build and test the SpaceX lunar lander threatens to push the flight into the 2026-27 timeframe.

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