The crash of the Russian Luna-25 spacecraft on the surface of the Moon on August 19 marked the latest failed attempt by the Roscosmos space agency to explore interplanetary space. Although the causes of the accident are still under investigation, it is already clear that it was caused by a series of problems affecting the Russian space program: lack of funding and engineering personnel, dependence on regard to the political interests of the State and vulnerability. to Western sanctions for the purchase of crucial electronic components.
Launching a research probe to the Moon has been a goal of Russian scientists since the 90s. The first modern Russian state interplanetary mission, Mars-96, failed in 1996. As a result, scientific organizations decided to moderate their ambitions and embark on a seemingly easier goal: to land a probe on the Moon.
At that time, the Russian space program was in a different situation than it is today. Although the industry was seriously underfunded, it had a highly professional staff who, during Soviet times, had orchestrated successful research missions to Venus. The Soviet Union had less luck reaching Mars, but that was due to imperfection in Soviet electronics, not a lack of professionalism.
Funding for the project became stable only in 2005, when Roscosmos included it in the federal space program for 2005-2015. Subsequently, the project had to be revised several times, mainly due to this lack of funding.
In the 2000s, the space program experienced a financial crisis, and within the industry there was constant competition for money between different projects. Their supporters were referred to as “Martians” – those who wanted to research Mars; “The Fools” – those who prioritized the Moon; and “astrophysicists” – who wanted to further their research in deep space. Priority was given to projects benefiting from the support of international partners or promising ambitious discoveries.
Much depended on the authority of the main lobbyists of each tendency. At first, astrophysicists won and were able to get money for the Integral space telescope project in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
Regarding the exploration of the solar system, the interest of Roscosmos remained focused on Mars, which is why preference was given to the Phobos-Grunt project. The mission promised a more ambitious achievement: reclaiming land from Mars’ largest moon, Phobos. The Moon has always been peripheral to state interests and has therefore been residually funded.
Prospects for a mission to the Moon grew in 2011, when the Spektr-R space telescope was launched this summer, which pleased astrophysicists. But the Phobos-Grunt craft suffered a mechanical problem that winter, separate upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Plans for a moonship were based on the Phobos-Grunt design. Its failure forced engineers back to the drawing board. Also at this time, the composition of the space industry itself was changing considerably; experienced scientists left, and young specialists replaced them. They needed ambitious, high-risk new projects to gain experience and prestige.
Several factors simultaneously affected the implementation of the Luna program. One of the most significant was the capture of Crimea by Russia in 2014, which prompted the United States to punishments block the export of high-tech electronic components to Russia. Many critical electronics had to be refurbished or purchased from new vendors. One of these devices, the Bius-L inertial navigation unit, could no longer be imported and therefore had to be produced in the country. The Luna-25’s success depended on its proper functioning at the time of its crash.
The second difficulty was once again created by the competition between Martians and astrophysicists. Even as space research funding in Russia improved during the 2010s, missions had to compete for engineering personnel. The Lavotchkine public association dominates the production of components for the space program. However, its manufacturing capacity was split between producing parts for weather-monitoring satellites and Mars mission and space telescope programs. As these missions were given higher priority, work on Lunar-25 was delayed.
Finally, in 2019, the Lavochkin Association completed its part in these projects, leaving more time for the lunar program. The latest launch delays and postponements, first to 2022 and then to 2023, were again related to import substitution control units. These would control the position of the spacecraft, determining its speed and distance from the surface of the Moon.
On August 11, 2023, Luna-25 was finally launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. A month earlier, India had launched its lunar vehicle, Chandrayaan 3, which was to land relatively close to its Russian counterpart. An unspoken race took place between the two probes. India had a head start, but its trade was moving on a more conservative trajectory. According to the plan, Chandrayaan 3 was supposed to land two days later than the Russian spacecraft, on August 23.
Eventually, Luna-25 was able to get closer to the Moon than Chandrayaan 3, but at that time Russian experts noticed “alarming signs.”
An error occurred during the first correction of the craft’s trajectory to the Moon, which required the engines to be restarted. It had already become clear that the Luna-25 flight was not going as planned, although it was not officially reported. Once in orbit around the Moon, nothing prevented scientists from leaving the device for a few days, or even a few months, to study its faults and try to remedy them. Luna-25 was to operate on the Moon for up to a year, so the station could have remained in orbit for a long time in the event of a malfunction. But if that had happened, India would have beaten Russia in the race to become the first conqueror of the circumpolar region of the Moon.
Also, on August 22, Russia celebrates Flag Day. Russia’s flag had been placed aboard the Luna-25 before its launch – perhaps Roscosmos wanted to release a photo of the Russian flag planted on the Moon to mark the holiday.
The last operation before landing Luna-25 was to enter a pre-landing orbit above the Moon at a height of 18 to 100 kilometers. When the engine started, it took 1.5 times longer than expected. Because of this, the angle of the orbit was lowered to an intersection with the surface and the device crashed into the far side of the Moon.
The consequences of the accident could manifest themselves mainly in cuts in funding for future scientific projects in space when Roscosmos drafts the new federal space program for 2025-2034. More specifically, this accident, and the damage it has caused to the prestige of the state in this field, can become a convenient reason for reducing research budgets at a time when all the priorities of the state are directed towards the needs of the Ministry of Defence.
Scientific research and lunar exploration are so alien to the interests of the current Russian government that Roscosmos scientists and officials will have to work hard to convince officials to provide them with the necessary funds to continue their activities.
The next Russian mission to the Moon, Luna-26, should be launched no earlier than 2027, and Luna-27 no earlier than 2028. But these dates may change depending on events on the front line, the economic situation of the country and the evolution of the situation. stability of Kremlin power.
Opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.
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