Russia launched an uncrewed spacecraft late last week in a bid to become the first country to land at the moon’s south pole.
The spacecraft, called Luna-25, is not the only one en route to our natural satellite—India’s Chandrayaan-3 lander is also in space, with the goal to land in the same lunar region.
If Russia’s new mission goes according to plan, it will be the country’s first successful landing on the moon since 1976. And the success of either Russia or India’s mission would mark the first-ever soft landing of a spacecraft at the moon’s south pole, according to the Washington Post’s Adela Suliman and Natalia Abbakumova.
The Luna-25 lander is meant to study the makeup of the moon’s surface and the plasma and dust that compose its thin atmosphere over the course of a year-long expedition. And, importantly, it will search below the surface for water ice, according to Nature News’ Jonathan O’Callaghan.
Finding water ice would be useful both scientifically and practically. Hydrogen from the ice could be used to make rocket fuel at a moon base, and astronauts might drink the water itself after it’s treated, writes the BBC’s Chris Baraniuk.
Plus, the discovery of water ice would contribute to our knowledge of the cosmos. “By understanding how the moon has collected water over time, we could start to piece together the history of water in the solar system,” Simeon Barber, a planetary scientist at the Open University in the United Kingdom, tells Nature News. “We can start asking questions about the local conditions near Earth as it was evolving.”
But the mission also has political implications. Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, says it wants to “ensure Russia’s guaranteed access to the moon’s surface” and prove the nation “is a state capable of delivering a payload to the moon,” per Emma Burrows and Jim Heintz of the Associated Press (AP).
Luna-25 launched at 2:10 a.m. Moscow time on Friday, August 11, from within Russia. The spacecraft is expected to reach lunar orbit on August 16, where it will remain for five to seven days, before landing north of the Boguslavsky crater. On Sunday, Russia turned on Luna-25’s scientific instruments and began processing data, per Reuters’ Guy Faulconbridge.
India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft launched on July 14, but it isn’t scheduled to land on the moon until August 23, according to the BBC. Russia hopes to land its spacecraft first. The mission comes as other countries are imposing economic sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
During the Cold War-era space race, the Soviet Union sent the first satellite to orbit the Earth in 1957, the first spacecraft to land on the moon’s surface in 1959 and the first human to space in 1961. In response, the United States put the first people on the moon in 1969. Four years ago, India attempted to land a spacecraft on the moon, but it crashed, according to the BBC.
Other countries are also focused on moon missions within this decade. NASA’s Artemis program has a crewed lunar flyby tentatively scheduled for 2024 and a crewed landing on the moon’s south pole for 2025. China has also announced its intentions to land people on the moon before 2030, per the Washington Post, a desire that signals the rivalry between the two countries.
“I think the space race is really between us and China,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at a press conference last week, according to the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang and Anton Troianovski. “I don’t think that a lot of people at this point would say that Russia is actually ready to be landing cosmonauts on the moon in the time frame that we’re talking about.”
But if Luna-25 successfully lands next week, it will be the first spacecraft to dig into the moon’s surface near the south pole.
Margaret Landis, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells Nature News that temperatures at the Boguslavsky crater are likely too high for ice. But, she tells the publication, “a null result is potentially just as interesting as a positive detection.”