LONDON (AP) — Russia is set to launch its first mission to the moon in nearly 50 years on Friday, plunging it into a space race with India which also aims to land a rover on the moon this month.
The launch of Luna-25 to the moon will be Russia’s first since 1976 when it was part of the Soviet Union and will be conducted without the help of the European Space Agency, which ended cooperation with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian lunar lander is expected to reach the moon on August 23, the same day as the launch of the Indian rover on July 14.
Both countries’ units are heading to the moon’s south pole, an area where no spacecraft has made a smooth landing. Only three governments have had successful moon landings: the Soviet Union, the United States, and China.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said it wanted to show that Russia is “a country capable of delivering a payload to the Moon” and “ensure Russia’s guaranteed access to the lunar surface”.
“Studying the Moon is not the goal,” said Vitaly Egorov, a famous Russian space analyst. “The goal is the political competition between two superpowers – China and the United States – and a number of other countries that also want to claim the title of superpower in space.”
Sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine make it difficult for it to access Western technology, affecting its space program. Analysts say Luna-25 was initially supposed to carry a small lunar rover, but that idea was abandoned to reduce the vehicle’s weight to improve reliability.
“Foreign electronics are lighter, domestic ones are heavier,” said Egorov. “While scientists may have the task of studying lunar waters, for Roscosmos the main task is simply to land on the moon. To recover lost Soviet expertise and learn how to perform this task in a new era.”
Luna-25 will be launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. The spaceport is a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin and key to his efforts to make Russia a superpower in space and to moving Russian launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
It is not clear whether Putin will attend the launch of the lunar lander. In 2016, he was present at the failed launch of a Soyuz rocket, after which Russian media reported that he severely berated those responsible.
A previous Indian attempt to land at the lunar south pole in 2019 ended when the rover crashed into the lunar surface.
The moon’s south pole is of particular interest to scientists, who believe that the permanently shadowed polar craters may contain water. Future explorers could turn water frozen in rocks into air and fuel for rockets.
“The moon is largely untouched, and the entire history of the moon is written on its face,” said Ed Plumer, an astronomer at Britain’s Royal Observatory, Greenwich. “It’s original and unlike anything she gets on Earth. It’s her own laboratory.”
Luna-25 will sample moon rocks and dust. Samples are needed to understand the moon’s environment before any base is built there, Plumer said, “otherwise we could be building things and have to shut them down after six months because everything was effectively sandblasted.”
Associated Press writers Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Jim Haynes in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this story.
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