The Russian space agency Roscosmos has admitted its Luna-25 spacecraft, intended to mark a new era in space exploration, has crashed into the Moon after entering an uncontrolled orbit. The disaster probably reflects the mistake of trying to hurry the mission in order to beat India’s Chandrayaan-3 to the coveted region. However, it’s also the third major failure for Roscosmos since the invasion of Ukraine which caused the West to apply sanctions.
Luna-25 was launched on August 10 with a stated intention to land near the lunar south pole, where planetary scientists have found evidence for ice at the bottom of deep craters. If so, this region is the prime candidate for future bases, as astronauts not needing to bring their own water would slash mission costs.
However, landing near the poles is much harder than at other locations on the Moon, which is why no one has attempted it until now. India saw the chance of being first to the south pole as its chance to create a first, doing what more experienced space-faring nations had not. After Chandrayaan-3 launched on July 14 and entered lunar orbit on August 5, Russia jumped into the race.
Where the Indian Space Research Organization took a slow and steady approach to the Moon, attempting to minimize risk, Roscosmos sought to make the same journey in a quarter of the time. The landing was scheduled for Monday, two days before India will be ready.
However, late on Saturday Russian time Roscosmos made a short statement on Telegram indicating something had gone wrong, without providing any details. Speculation quickly started on Russian social media that the situation must be serious; otherwise, Roscosmos wouldn’t have admitted the problem, given its historical lack of transparency.
It now seems the guessing game was right, with the space agency acknowledging it lost contact with the craft after it moved to its pre-landing orbit. "The apparatus moved into an unpredictable orbit and ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the surface of the Moon," Roscosmos said in a statement.
Possibly not coincidentally, the Roscosmos website is denying access at the time of writing.
Some social media accounts continue to claim that communication with the craft has been restored, but these appear to be based on false hopes.
The Soviet Union landed an uncrewed vehicle on the lunar surface in 1966 and brought back soil samples four years later, but neither it nor its successors have been back since 1976. The Russian strength in space launches has been demonstrated many times since Soviet Union was the first to create an artificial satellite and put a person in orbit. Indeed for a decade, NASA had to depend on their former foes to get astronauts to the international space station. Beyond Low Earth Orbit, however, the Soviet/Russian record has been much less impressive, with most missions to Mars and the Moon failing.
Even before this disaster, Luna-25 encountered problems, with a planned rover reportedly abandoned in order to cut back on weight. Meanwhile, two Russian cargo ships have suffered leaks. While one of these has been blamed on the bad luck of being struck by an unusually large micrometeorite, the other is yet to be explained, adding to an air of chaos about the program.