By | August 6, 2023
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The crash of Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft on the lunar surface on August 19 marked Roscosmos’ latest failed attempt to explore interplanetary space. While 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 staff, dependence on state political interests, and vulnerability to Western sanctions in the procurement of crucial electronic components.

Launching a research probe to the moon has been a goal of Russian scientists since the 90s. The first interplanetary mission of the modern Russian state, Mars-96, failed in 1996. As a result, scientific organizations decided to moderate their ambitions and take up an apparently easier goal – to land a probe on the moon.

Back then, the Russian space program was in a different situation compared to today. While the industry was severely underfunded, it had highly professional personnel who, during the Soviet era, orchestrated successful research missions to Venus. The Soviet Union was less fortunate in reaching Mars, but this was due to the imperfection of Soviet electronics, and not to 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 repeatedly, mainly due to this lack of funding.

In the 2000s, the space program was hit by a financial crisis and within the industry there was constant competition for money between different projects. Their followers were called “The Martians” – those who wanted to research Mars; “lunatics” — those who prioritized the moon; and “astrophysicists” – who wanted to probe further into space. Priority was given to projects that enjoyed the support of international partners or promised ambitious discoveries.

Much depended on the authority of the key lobbyists in each persuasion. At first the astrophysicists won, and they were able to get money for the Integral Space Telescope project in collaboration with the European Space Agency.

When it came to exploring the solar system, Roscosmos’ interest remained with Mars, so the Phobos-Grunt project was preferred. The mission promised a more ambitious achievement: retrieving soil from Mars’ largest moon, Phobos. The moon has always been peripheral to the state’s interests, and was thus financed on a residual basis.

Prospects for a mission to the moon increased in 2011, when the Spektr-R space telescope was launched in the summer, delighting astrophysicists. But the Phobos-Grunt craft suffered a mechanical failure that winter, break apart while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Plans for a lunar rover were based on the design of Phobos-Grunt. Its failure forced engineers back to the drawing board. Even at that time, the composition of the space industry itself was changing significantly; experienced researchers left, and younger specialists came in their place. They needed new ambitious projects with high risk to gain experience and prestige.

Several factors influenced the implementation of the Luna program at once. One of the most important was Russia’s conquest of Crimea in 2014, which got the United States sanctions blocks the export of high-tech electronic components to Russia. Many critical electronic elements must be refurbished or sourced from new suppliers. One of these units – the navigation inertial unit Bius-L – could no longer be imported, so it had to be manufactured domestically. The success of Luna-25 depended on its proper functioning when it crashed.

The second difficulty was again created by competition between the Martians and the astrophysicists. Although funding for space research in Russia improved in the 2010s, the missions were left to compete for engineering staff. The state-owned Lavochkin Association dominates the production of components for the space program. However, its manufacturing capacity was split between producing parts for weather monitoring satellites and the Mars mission and space telescope programs. As these missions took 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 delays and postponements of the launch, first to 2022 and then to 2023, were again linked to import-substituted control units. These would control the spacecraft’s position and determine its speed and distance to the lunar surface.

On August 11, 2023, Luna-25 was finally launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. A month earlier, India launched its lunar rover, Chandrayaan 3, which was supposed to land relatively close to its Russian counterpart. An unspoken race unfolded between the two probes. India had an edge, but its craft moved along a more conservative trajectory. According to the plan, Chandrayaan 3 would land two days later than Russia’s spacecraft, on August 23.

Eventually, Luna-25 was able to get closer to the Moon than Chandrayaan 3, but at the time, Russian experts noticed “alarming signs”.

An error occurred during the initial correction of the craft’s trajectory to the Moon, requiring the engines to be restarted. It had already become clear that the Luna-25’s flight did not go according to plan, although this was not officially reported. Once it began orbiting the moon, nothing prevented the scientists from leaving the device for a few days, or even months, so that they could study its flaws and try to fix them. Luna-25 was expected 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 failure. But if it happened, India would have defeated Russia in the race to be the first conqueror of the circumpolar region of the Moon.

In addition, Russia celebrates Flag Day on August 22. Russia’s flag had been placed aboard Luna-25 before launch — perhaps Roscosmos wanted to debut a photo of the Russian flag planted on the moon to mark the occasion.

The final operation before Luna-25’s landing consisted of entering a pre-landing orbit above the Moon at an altitude of 18 to 100 kilometers. When the engine was on, it took one and a half times longer than planned. Because of this, the angle of the orbit was lowered to an intersection with the surface, and the device crashed on the far side of the moon.

The consequences of the accident may be seen primarily in funding cuts for future scientific projects in space as Roscosmos prepares the new federal space program for 2025-2034. More precisely, this accident, and the damage it has done to the state’s prestige in this arena, may become a suitable reason to reduce research budgets at a time when all the state’s priorities are focused on the needs of the Department of Defense.

Scientific research and lunar exploration are so foreign to the interests of the current Russian government that scientists and officials at Roscosmos will have to work hard to convince officials to give them the necessary funding to continue.

Russia’s next mission to the Moon, Luna-26, is scheduled to launch no earlier than 2027, and Luna-27 no earlier than 2028. However, these dates are subject to change depending on frontline events, the economic situation at home and the stability of Kremlin power.

The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.

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