Experts say the crash of Luna 25 and Chandrayaan 3’s attempted landing could signal another shift in the space race

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A Russian spacecraft malfunctioned over the weekend, causing the spacecraft to crash into the moon. The failed landing attempt has led experts to question the future of the country’s lunar exploration ambitions and the geopolitical dynamics underpinning modern space exploration efforts.

The spacecraft, Luna 25, lost contact with operators at the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, on Saturday, August 19. By Sunday, the vehicle was declared dead.

Initial reports from the head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, indicate that there was a problem with the craft’s engines, which led to a malfunction in the ignition while it tried to adjust its orbit in the days leading up to the landing.

The failure was a major blow to the space agency’s ambitions. Russia is seeking to prove that its civilian space programme, which analysts say has struggled for decades, can still achieve the amazing feats it demonstrated during the space race in the 20th century.

“Russia’s legacy of the Cold War will only be a legacy unless they can do it themselves,” said Victoria Samson, Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peaceful exploration of outer space.

Under the former Soviet Union, Russia has safely landed seven spacecraft on the moon, including the first-ever soft landing in 1966.

Borisov acknowledged that the Soviet successes of the last century were not easily replicable.

“We have to master all the techniques again, of course, at a new technical level,” he said during one of the interviews. interview With Russian state media on Monday.

This image, published by the Russian space corporation Roscosmos on Thursday, August 17, 2023, shows an image of the lunar south pole region on the far side of the moon, taken by the Russian spacecraft Luna-25 before its failed attempt to land.  The Russian state company, Roscosmos, said on Sunday that the Luna-25 plane crashed into the surface of the moon after it went into an out-of-control orbit.  The authorities have opened an investigation into the possible cause.  (Center for Operation of Ground Space Infrastructure - Roskosmos State Space Corporation via AP)

And Borisov has given guarantees that Roskosmos can get back on track. He said the space agency would accelerate the next two lunar missions: Luna 26 and Luna 27, which could give Roscosmos all the science it lost with the failure of Luna 25.

However, space policy experts question whether the Russian government has the strength or the will to make it happen, especially as the country faces sanctions over the war in Ukraine, and Roskosmos’ importance to the Kremlin appears to be waning.

“Even if they say they will continue (the Luna programme), that doesn’t necessarily mean anything at this point. The question is: can they continue? Do they have the capacity to continue that?” said Robert Pearson, former ambassador to Turkey, former director general of the US Foreign Service, and founding member of the Space Diplomacy Lab at Duke University.

The consequence of this failure, Pearson added, is that it raises on the world stage the question of whether Russia is “serious about the space race” at all.

A changing civic space landscape

Russia’s failed attempt to land on the moon comes amid a rush of other lunar exploration efforts, largely designed by countries not seen as traditional space powers. Luna 25 was flying alongside India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft, which will attempt to land on the moon on Wednesday.

more than Dozens of other countries It also has plans for moon missions in the coming years, including the United States’ ambitious Artemis III programme, which could land astronauts on the moon as early as 2025.

“I think that … indicates how low the cost of space exploration has become,” Samson said. “It’s still not cheap by any means, but it’s become a little more affordable. … I think that’s why more countries can (attempt) it.”

But while the loss of Luna 25 may be widely seen as a setback for Russia’s space ambitions, it is worth noting that putting a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon remains a very difficult feat.

India’s latest attempt to use the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft failed. Two other commercial spacecraft have also crashed since 2019.

But different expectations may have been placed on Russia, given its extensive experience in the Soviet era.

Pearson added that if the Indian space agency could land its spacecraft safely, it could “really spell the loss of prestige, influence and technological capability on the part of Russia”.

The mission has also been closely watched because of how the country’s civilian space program is developing. Samson noted that in recent years Roscosmos has faced problems related to financing, quality control issues and suspected corruption.

The space agency has also faced negative reactions from Western countries since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. For example, the European Space Agency was slated to work with Roscosmos on the Luna 25 mission as well as many future exploration endeavors, but Europe pulled out of it. Partnership after the invasion of Ukraine.

Now, questions are swirling about how Russia’s closest modern space partner – China – would react to the Luna 25 failure.

The two countries announced that they would work together to create the International Lunar Research Station, a lunar base to rival plans by the United States and its allies for a permanent lunar outpost under NASA’s Artemis program.

Samson noted that China, the only country so far to have landed spacecraft on the surface of the moon in the 21st century, has already downplayed Russia’s role in the programme.

“I’m sure China is really wondering what they got themselves into” after the Luna 25 mission, Samson said.

However, both Samson and Persson point out that Russia continues to play a major role on the international stage. Russia is the United States’ primary partner on the International Space Station, although Russia has previously threatened to withdraw from that operation. For many years, Russia was also the only country able to ferry astronauts to and from the space station after NASA retired its space shuttle program. (Today, SpaceX has taken over that task for the United States.)

The Luna 25 spacecraft was to land on the south pole of the Moon. It’s the same area where India aims to place its Chandrayaan-3 lander, and where NASA plans to place its astronauts as well as future robotic missions.

The widespread interest in the moon’s south pole can be attributed to one key feature: water ice. Scientists believe that large amounts of water are stored near the South Pole, frozen in mysterious craters.

Water ice could be very valuable to the future of space exploration. The precious resource could be turned into rocket fuel for missions exploring the depths of the universe or into drinking water for astronauts on long-duration missions.

“This is a big driver why we need to go to the South Pole, and they’re part of the Space Race Part II,” said Dr. Angela Marusiak, assistant research professor at UCLA. Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona, in an interview on Aug. 18.

Because tropical dynamics make the South Pole difficult to reach, it has not been explored as deeply as other regions. This gives Russia and every other country with ambitions to reach the moon a major reason to go: a clear scientific and strategic interest.

But Pearson questioned why Russia would choose to head directly to the South Pole for its first lunar mission in nearly 50 years.

“All they had to do was land[somewhere on the moon]and they would show the world that they are in the space race,” Pearson said of Russia. “They took a desperate act – in my opinion – when they had to choose a safer option.”

Which countries reach the moon, and when, could have implications for how scientists use the collected data.

It’s not entirely clear how information sharing will work.

India, for example, is a signatory to the convention NASA’s Artemis AccordsIt is a document that sets out the agreed rules for lunar exploration, which includes the obligation to share scientific data.

On the other hand, Russia is not a signatory to the treaty.

But Samson cautioned against describing these lunar missions as a race, which would suggest that the participants in them are dissidents. Although it’s hard to know exactly what dynamics will emerge, the Moon is a big place — and there’s room for everyone.

“My concern is that if we look at this in an aggressive, hostile way, we will produce the exact conditions that we are trying to avoid,” she said.

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