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A Russian spacecraft malfunctioned over the weekend, sending the vehicle crashing into the moon. The failed landing attempt has experts questioning the future of the country’s lunar exploration ambitions and the geopolitical dynamics that underpin modern space exploration efforts.
The spacecraft, Luna 25, lost contact with operators of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, on Saturday, August 19. The vehicle was declared dead by Sunday.
Initial reports from Roscosmos chief, Yury Borisov, indicated there was a problem with the vehicle’s engine, which misfired as it tried to adjust its orbit in the days before landing.
The failure was a major blow to the space agency’s ambitions. Russia was looking to prove that its civilian space program, which analysts say has faced problems for decades, can still achieve the stunning feats it displayed during the 20th century space race.
“Russia’s Cold War legacy will be OK — a legacy — unless they can actually do it themselves,” said Victoria Samson, director of the Washington office of the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the peaceful exploration of outer space.
Under the former Soviet Union, Russia managed to land seven spacecraft safely on the surface of the Moon, including the first soft landing in 1966.
Borisov acknowledged that the Soviet successes of the past century were not easily repeatable.
“We must master all technology again – of course, at a new technological level,” he once said the interview with Russian state media on Monday.
Borisov assured that Roscosmos can get back on track. He said the space agency would accelerate its next two moon missions: Luna 26 and Luna 27, which could give Roscosmos all the science lost with the failure of Luna 25.
Still, space policy experts question whether the Russian government has the ability or the will to make it happen, especially as the country faces sanctions surrounding the war in Ukraine and Roscosmos appears to be losing importance to the Kremlin.
“Even if they say they’re going to continue (the Luna program), that doesn’t mean anything at this point. And the question is: can they continue? Do they have the capacity to continue this?” Robert Pearson, a former ambassador to Turkey, former director general of the US Foreign Service, and founding member of Duke University’s Space Diplomacy Lab.
The consequence of this failure, Pearson added, is that it raises questions on the global stage about whether Russia is “serious about the space race” at all.
A changing civil space landscape
Russia’s failed moon landing attempt came amid a flurry of other lunar exploration efforts, largely designed by countries not seen as traditional space powers. Luna 25 was flying alongside India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft, which will attempt to land on the moon as soon as Wednesday.
More a Dozens of other countries The United States also has plans for lunar missions in the coming years, including the ambitious Artemis III, which could land astronauts on the lunar surface as early as 2025.
“I think … that tells you how much the cost of space exploration has come down,” Samson said. “It’s still not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s become a little more reasonable.” … I think that’s why more countries are able to (try to) do it.
While the loss of Luna 25 may be widely seen as a setback for Russia’s space ambitions, it’s worth noting that landing a spacecraft on the Moon remains an extremely difficult feat.
India’s last attempt with Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft failed. And two more commercial spacecraft have also crash-landed since 2019.
Different expectations may have been placed on Russia because of the extensive experience of the Soviet era.
If India’s space agency can land its spacecraft safely, Pearson added, it could “really outline the loss of Russia’s prestige and influence and technological capabilities.”
The mission was also closely watched because of how the country’s civilian space program was developing. In recent years, Roscosmos has been plagued by funding, quality control problems and suspected corruption, Samson noted.
The space agency has also faced pushback from Western countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. For example, the European space agency Roscosmos was set to work on the Luna 25 mission as well as various future exploration efforts, but Europe backed out. Partnership after the invasion of Ukraine.
Now, questions are swirling about how Russia’s closest modern space partner — China — might react to the Luna 25 failure.
The two countries announced plans to establish a moon base, the International Lunar Research Center, to rival rival plans by the United States and its allies to build a permanent lunar outpost under NASA’s Artemis program.
Samson noted that China, which has so far been the only country to soft-land spacecraft on the Moon in the 21st century, has already reduced Russia’s role in the program.
“I’m sure China is really wondering what they got themselves into” after the Luna 25 mission, Samson said.
Still, both Samson and Pearson note that Russia continues to play an important role on the international stage. The country is the United States’ primary partner in the International Space Station, although Russia has previously threatened to withdraw from that operation. For years, Russia was the only country capable of getting astronauts to and from the space station, even after NASA retired its space shuttle program. (Today, SpaceX has taken over that function for the US.)
The Luna 25 spacecraft was intended to land on the South Pole of the Moon. This is the same region where India aims to place its Chandrayaan-3 lander and where NASA plans to house its astronauts as well as future robotic missions.
Much interest in the Moon’s south pole can be attributed to one key feature: water ice. Scientists believe that near the South Pole, large amounts of water accumulate, frozen solid in shadowy craters.
Water ice could be extremely valuable for the future of space exploration. The precious resource could be converted into rocket fuel for deep space exploration missions or drinking water for astronauts on long-duration missions.
“That’s a really big driver of why we need to go to the South Pole — and they’re part of a ‘space race part two,'” said Dr. Angela Marusiak, an assistant research professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, in an Aug. 18 interview.
Because orbital motion makes it difficult to reach the South Pole, it has not been explored as deeply as other areas. This gives Russia and every other nation with lunar ambitions a key reason to go: there is a clear scientific — and strategic — interest.
But Pearson questioned why Russia chose to go directly to the South Pole for the first lunar mission in nearly 50 years.
“All they had to do was land (somewhere on the moon) and they could show the world they were in the space race,” Pearson said of Russia. “They took a desperate measure – in my opinion – when they should have chosen a safer option.”
Which countries reach the moon and when, may have implications for how scientists use the data collected.
It’s not exactly clear how data sharing will work.
For example, India is a signatory NASA’s Artemis AccordsA document mapping agreed-upon rules for lunar exploration that includes commitments to share scientific information.
Russia, on the other hand, is not a signatory.
But Samson cautioned against characterizing these lunar expeditions as a race, suggesting that those involved were adversaries. Although it’s hard to know exactly what dynamics will be created, the moon is a big place — and there’s room for everyone.
“My concern is that if we look at it in an aggressive, hostile way,” he said, “then we’ll create the exact situation we’re trying to avoid.”