Russian Moon lander crash — what happened, and what’s next?

The Soyuz-2.1b rocket with the moon lander Luna 25 pictured on the launch pad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome.

Luna 25 was launched atop a Soyuz rocket from Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia.Credit: Roscosmos State Space Corporation via AP/Alamy

Russia says its Luna 25 spacecraft has crashed into the surface of the Moon during preparations to attempt a landing at the lunar south pole. “It’s hugely disappointing,” says Simeon Barber, a planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. “It highlights that landing on the moon is not easy.”

The uncrewed spacecraft blasted off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Eastern Russia on 10 August. It was the country’s first mission to the Moon since its Luna 24 mission in 1976. The goal was to land at the 100-kilometre-wide Boguslawsky crater near the south pole, which would have made Russia the first country to land a craft in this location.

But on 19 August, the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced on the social media network Telegram that “communication with the Luna-25 spacecraft was interrupted”, after an impulse command was sent to the spacecraft to lower its orbit around the Moon. Attempts to contact the spacecraft on 20 August were unsuccessful, leading Roscosmos to determine that Luna 25 had “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface”.

The mission’s failure will be a huge loss to Russia’s space ambitions, says Bleddyn Bowen, a space-policy specialist at the University of Leicester, UK. “It’s just the most spectacular example of the problems that have plagued the Russian space sector for many years now,” he adds. “I don’t know how they’re going to come back from this.”

Searching for ice

If Luna 25 had landed successfully, the spacecraft would have used various instruments including a robotic arm to dig up to 50 centimetres into the lunar surface in search of water ice — thought to be abundant at the Moon’s south pole and a potential resource for future missions.

The stationary lander was designed to last for up to 12 months on the surface, which could have revealed possible changes in “frost on the surface of the Moon”, says Barber, who was part of a European collaboration with Russia on lunar missions that ended last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We do think there is an active water cycle on the Moon today, with water molecules being trapped in cold places.”

Luna 25’s landing was scheduled just ahead of another attempt to touch down at the Moon’s south pole. India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft will aim to land on the surface on 23 August, and the vehicle is currently searching for the opportune landing spot from lunar orbit. “If they succeed, it would be quite a demonstration of how India can do lunar [missions] in a way Russia can’t,” says Bowen.

NASA also hopes to land a craft at the Moon’s south pole later this year, hitching a ride with the US private firm Intuitive Machines, with other uncrewed US moon landings planned ahead of the return of US astronauts to the moon later this decade. China too has set its sights on the lunar south pole, having already landed on the Moon’s far side for the first time and returned samples from the Moon in recent years.

Russia does still have two more Moon missions in the works, the Luna 26 orbiter and Luna 27 lander, but the status of those missions is unclear following Luna 25’s failure. “It’s inevitability going to push back the program,” says Christopher Newman, a professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK. But he adds that it would be a “surprise” if those missions don’t go ahead as Russia continues to try to demonstrate its space prowess.

“This was clearly an attempt to re-establish Russia as a dominant space power,” says Newman. “It will bite deeply into their confidence that they haven’t done that.”

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