ESA: Fly me to the Moon, just not on a Russian rocket

Payloads pulled as Europe eyes alternatives

The European Space Agency (ESA) has pulled back from yet more "cooperative activities" with Russia as the agency continues to adjust to life without its former partner.

It said yesterday that a "fundamental change of circumstances... make it impossible for ESA to implement the planned lunar cooperation."

ESA's ExoMars project was already put on hold last month as bosses ponder how to get the completed rover to the red planet without the Proton rocket they had expected to launch it on in September.

This is unfortunate since, according to the agency, every component (launcher, carrier module, descent module and the Rosalind Franklin rover itself) had passed their flight-readiness reviews. A "fast-track" study of alternative launch options, led by the Franco Italian joint venture Thales Alenia Space, is underway, but things aren't looking too rosy for the Rosalind Franklin rover at the moment.

Moon shot

More news for scientists has emerged from ESA's council meeting on April 13 concerning the agency's lunar ambitions. Plans were afoot to fly ESA gear on the upcoming Luna-25, 26 and 27 missions, but the sanctions imposed on Russia required a hasty rethink, since the planned cooperation is very much a no-no.

Luna-25, expected to launch in August this year, is a robotic Moon lander intended for the lunar South Pole and is named for the glory days of the Soviet lunar program that ended in the 1970s; Luna-24 was a sample return mission that launched in August 1976, successfully returning lunar soil samples to Earth later that month. It would be 2020 before the next samples made it back to Earth, courtesy of China's Chang'e 5 probe.

In terms of the payloads being pulled, a navigation camera known as PILOT-D (originally planned for Luna-25) is now likely to fly on a commercial service provider and the PROSPECT lunar drill and analysis package planned for Luna-27 will now fly on a NASA-led Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) mission. Luna-27 was aiming for an August 2025 launch, indicating how far ahead ESA is looking.

The announcement came in the wake of a delay for ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti's launch to the International Space Station (ISS.) Cristoforetti is one of the four astronauts due to launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon on the Crew-4 mission, which will now lift off no earlier than April 23.

The turnaround time does, however, remain impressive. The Crew Dragon of the Axiom Space Ax-1 mission got off the pad less than a week ago, on April 8. The Register understands the launch was greeted with relief in some quarters, not least because Ax-1 was blocking the pad ahead of Cristoforetti's flight.

As for the payloads planned for Russian spacecraft, veteran Russian space industry observer and writer, Anatoly Zak, remarked that with the shift to a US carrier for the drill at least, "the instrument actually has better chances of getting to the lunar surface."

On April 12, Russian social media orifices tweeted out a message that Russia was to resume its lunar program.

Just without ESA cooperation, it would seem. ®

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