Written by C. Christian Monson
One year totally alone on the Moon’s South Pole. Even for the most introverted of us, that doesn’t sound like much of a vacation. But that’s exactly what the mission plan is for the Luna 25 lander, Russia’s next Moon mission planned for July 2022, which will make it the first Russian spacecraft to touch down on the Moon since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During its time on the Moon, Luna 25 will use its robotic arm and drill to extract soil samples from the Lunar surface and a camera provided by the European Space Agency to image the terrain. In fact, Luna 25 is part of a long-term plan envisioned by Roscosmos to collaborate with international space agencies like those in Europe and China with eyes on Lunar colonization.
THE LUNA PROGRAM RESURRECTED
Despite its lonely orders, Luna 25 is actually part of a big family, one that traces its roots all the way back to 1958 and that will have descendents at least through 2030. Originally formed as the Luna-Glob program in 1997, Roscosmos renamed it Luna 25 to give it continuation with the previous Soviet Luna program whose last mission was Luna 24 in 1976.
Luna 24 traveled to the Moon’s Mare Crisium, aka the Sea of Crises, just northwest of the Sea of Tranquility where it collected 170 grams or six ounces of Lunar soil. Those samples were then returned to Earth where Soviet scientists discovered the presence of water.
Starting with Luna 1, the first spacecraft to escape geocentric orbit, which it did in 1959, there were a number of notable probes, landers and impactors in the Luna program. The most famous might be Luna 2, which was the first man-made object to reach the Lunar surface on 12 September 1959.
Other notable missions in the Luna program include Luna 9, which in 1966 was the first spacecraft to perform a soft landing on the Moon, Luna 2 having only been an impactor. Additionally, in 1970, Luna 16 was the first robotic probe and Soviet mission to return a sample to Earth and the third mission to return samples overall following the American Apollo 11 and 12 manned missions.
Altogether there were 15 successful missions during the Soviet Era of the Luna program, all of which contributed significantly to the international wealth of knowledge on Lunar composition and spacecraft design. By 1964, the entire program cost upwards of $10 billion, which would be about $92 billion today.
As the Soviet economy began to stagnate in the mid-70s, these costs stopped being viable, especially in the face of the even larger number of unsuccessful missions that were initially covered up by the government. Indeed, Luna 24 was actually the 45th mission in the program.
Of course, if you know your history, it was all downhill from there for the USSR. The economy only got worse after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the union ultimately collapsed in 1991. Space exploration was put on the backburner for a long time, but starting in the late 90s, Roscosmos tried to start rebuilding by forming relationships with NASA and the ESA.
Though a lot of their initial plans failed on the drawing board, Roscosmos finally settled on a probe designed to study the mostly unexplored Lunar South Pole, which data suggest may have ice deposits. Nearly 50 years since Luna 24, Luna 25 will now finally resurrect the storied Soviet Luna Program.
THE LITTLE LANDER THAT COULD
Getting Luna 25 to the factory floor has not been easy for Roscosmos. While officials first conceptualized the mission in 1997, the Russian financial crisis of 1998 delayed any serious planning until 1999 when the Russian Academy of Sciences pitched the idea of a Moon mission using the same platform as the Phobos-Grunt Lander. Phobos-Grunt was a mission that was developed in 1996 with plans for landing on Mars’s moon Phobos and bringing back samples, but it failed after launch in 2011.
In 2000 money was actually allocated to start the project, but the plan was ultimately rejected. As a result, the Russian Academy of Sciences decided to look outside Russia for funding in the form of international cooperation.
Officials first approached Japan in 2004 with the idea of letting them use a Soyuz Rocket for their Lunar-A mission if they could merge their lander projects. However, Roscosmos vetoed the idea, saying the billion-ruble price tag for the rocket, which equates to about $10.5 million, was just too much. Negotiations continued trying to reach a different arrangement, but the Japanese Lunar-A project was canceled in 2007.
Roscosmos started changing its attitude towards Luna 25 in 2006 when aerospace funding in Russia started to pick up. In fact, in December 2006, they announced that Luna 25, then Luna-Glob, would launch in 2012. This then got pushed up multiple times all the way to 2009.
The initial design published in 2008 had the probe launching with a Soyuz-2 rocket and Fregat upper stage capable of injecting it into Lunar transfer orbit. After detaching from the rocket, the spacecraft was supposed to have a mass of 2,125 kilograms, or around 4,700 pounds, roughly the weight of a rhinoceros. It would have four penetrators as well as a Lunar orbiter but no actual lander.
One of the biggest problems with the plan was the penetrators. The scientists involved believed that the seismic equipment they would carry would only be able to survive an impact at a speed of 1,500 meters per second, which is about 3,400 miles per hour. However, based on the plans at the time, the penetrators would impact the Lunar surface at 2,500 meters per second, or about 5,600 miles per hour, more than seven times the speed of sound.
Since Roscosmos and the Russian Academy of Sciences hadn’t had much recent experience in Lunar exploration, they really wanted to slow the penetrators down. Unfortunately, they couldn’t figure out how to develop a propellant that would effectively do so, and they finally abandoned the idea of including penetrators with Luna-Glob.
By 2010 it was obvious that there were delays with the Luna-Glob program. The Russian Academy of Science decided to merge Luna-Glob with a joint Indian-Russian Lunar mission called Luna-Resurs, which would include an Indian-built lander and rover. For a while, it wasn’t clear if there’d be a separate Luna-Glob lander, but by 2011 it seemed that Luna-Glob would launch in 2014 after Luna-Resurs with a lander weighing 1,260 kilograms, or about 2,800 pounds.
Of course, Luna 25 didn’t launch in 2014, either, and India ultimately decided to pursue Lunar exploration independently. One of the biggest hangups was increased pressure on Russian aerospace manufacturer NPO Lavochkin, which got busy with other projects due to collaboration between Roscosmos and the European Space Agency on things like the astrobiology program ExoMars.
That collaboration actually ended up extending to Luna 25, though, with Roscosmos and the ESA initiating talks on the joint exploration of the Moon in 2015. By 2017, assembly of the Luna 25 propulsion system had begun with launch planned for December 2019, though that was ultimately pushed back to October 2021 and then again to its current date of 23 July 2022.
NPO Lavochkin is currently manufacturing the lander as well as the Fregat upper stage. The lander will weigh 1,750 kilograms fully fueled, or about 4,000 pounds. About 975 kilograms of that weight, or 2,200 pounds, more than half, is propellant.
The scientific payload will weigh 30 kilograms, about 66 pounds, and consist of nine instruments: ADRON-LR, which will perform active neutron and gamma-ray analysis of the Lunar regolith; ARIES-L, which will measure plasma in the Lunar exosphere; LASMA-LR, a laser mass-spectrometer; LIS-TV-RPM, which will perform infrared spectrometry and imaging of minerals; PmL, which will measure dust and micro-meteorites; THERMO-L, which will measure the thermal properties of the Lunar regolith; STS-L, which will perform panoramic and local imaging; BUNI, which is in charge of handling the data and power for the other instruments; and a laser retroreflector. Luna 25 will be able to transmit the data collected by these instruments back to Earth at a rate of 4 megabits per second, fast enough to stream Netflix.
Additionally, the ESA is planning to include a Pilot-D camera on Luna 25 that will image the terrain during and after landing. This will help inform future ESA and Roscosmos missions land more precisely.
Finally, the lander will have four landing legs, four solar arrays, two science decks and a robotic arm.
Luna 25 is planned for launch from Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket. This is a three-stage rocket whose boosters alone reach almost 20 meters, or 65 feet, in height, and weigh nearly 4,000 kilograms, or 9,000 pounds, without fuel. With the mixture of liquid oxygen and rocket propellant 1 added in, the boosters weigh a whopping 45,000 kilograms, or 100,000 pounds, allowing them to achieve 840 kiloNewtons of thrust, or 190,000 pounds, more than eight times that of an F-16 fighter jet.
The top stage of the rocket will consist of the Fregat spacecraft that will make sure Luna 25 gets to Lunar transfer orbit. This upper stage, also called a “space tug,” is just 1.5 meters or 5 feet tall and 3.35 meters or 11 feet wide. It has a dry weight of about 1,000 kilograms or 2,200 pounds, but that increases to 6,500 kilograms, or 14,000 pounds, when filled with its unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine fuel. The main engine produces about 20 kiloNewtons of thrust while the 12 attitude control thrusters produce about 50 Newtons of thrust.
The Soyuz rocket will take the payload into Earth orbit after which the Fregat will detach and fire again to move it into Lunar transfer orbit. From Lunar orbit, the lander will descend to the surface just north of Boguslavsky Crater near the Lunar South Pole with a location southwest of the Manzini crater slated as a reserve option.
26, 27, 28…
Luna 25 is far from just an homage to the Soviet Luna Program. It’s the beginning of a legacy all its own.
In fact, Luna 25 is essentially a scouting mission and a trial run by Roscosmos to prove the viability of future missions. Luna 26 is already planned for two years after the launch of Luna 25. It won’t be a lander but instead an orbiter that will take scientific measurements and potentially serve as a communications relay for future landers. There have been discussions of carrying NASA instruments as well.
Luna 27 will be the next lander, scheduled for 2025, a year after Luna 26. It’s a collaboration between Roscosmos and the ESA that will drill into the Lunar soil to search for water and other chemicals to help scientists figure out how future explorers might be able to sustain a base on the Moon.
Roscosmos actually has missions proposed through Luna 31 with launches through 2030. It’s very possible these missions will lay the foundation for a future Lunar base. In addition to collaboration with the US, Europe, Japan and India, Russia and China have decided to form the Sino-Russian Joint Data Center for Lunar and Deep-Space Exploration, which will involve China coordinating its Chang’e 7 Lunar mission with Luna 26.
The data the two nations collect will inform the development of the International Scientific Lunar Station, a complex of robotic research facilities planned by Roscosmos and the Chinese National Space Administration. Those robots will then prepare the way for a manned base.
With such a storied past and ambitious future, there’s a lot resting on Luna 25’s metal shoulders. It’s overcome a lot of obstacles to get to where it is today, and there are surely more to come. Whether it finally gets off the ground in July 2022 or is postponed again, one thing seems to be clear: Russia is going back to the Moon sooner or later no matter the cost.
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