Moscow makes a mess on the Moon as Luna 25 probe misses orbit, lands with a thud

First lunar attempt since Soviet era ends in катастрофа

Russia’s rushed attempt to land a probe on the Moon has failed.

News that the mission was in trouble came on Saturday when national space agency Роскосмос (Roscosmos) used its Telegram account to reveal that the Luna 25 probe was instructed to enter its pre-landing orbit, but an emergency occurred, and the maneuver was not a success.

A subsequent post delivered the bad news: the botched burn missed its mark so badly that communication with Luna 25 was lost.

Attempts to reconnect on August 19 and 20 failed, and the space agency's analysis of the erroneous orbit Luna 25 entered saw it "switched to an off-design orbit and ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface."

That last quote is a machine translation, so let's not go all Star Trek and imagine the probe fell into a trans-dimensional wormhole so the matter used to make the machine cannot now be found in this thread of the multiverse. It's more likely Google Translate has been a little ebullient.

Luna 25 still exists. It's just kersplat.

A special interdepartmental commission has been formed to probe the probe's problems. Not, per the previous paragraphs, an interdimensional commission.

Luna 25 was intended to land near the Moon's south pole, do some science, and scout for sources ice and other resources that could help to make a human outpost on Earth's natural satellite more plausible – a scenario that has become more urgent in recent years as China and the US jockey for position.

Luna 25 had been on the drawing board for years, but the project's scope was reduced when a rover was deemed too heavy to make the trip. The remaining lander was equipped with an arm with which to retrieve samples. That's small beer compared to China's most recent lunar efforts – one of which landed a rover on the far side of the Moon while another saw samples returned to Earth.

The mission was hoped to have propaganda value at home and abroad. Russia's space program has not evolved at a pace comparable to the US or Chinese efforts in recent years. Sanctions on Moscow following its illegal invasion of Ukraine mean Russia will struggle to find future collaborators and to import technology it needs for advanced missions.

A successful moonshot would have shown the nation remains a power to be reckoned with, to domestic and international audiences.

Not that there's anything wrong with failing to stick a Moon landing. Space is hard, after all. And Russia can be excused a little rustiness running missions beyond low Earth orbit. Luna 24, its previous mission to the Moon, took place in August 1976. Leonid Brezhnev was running the place at the time.

Remember, too, that Russia remains one of just three nations to land a craft on the Moon. And that NASA used Russian Soyuz rockets to fly American crews to the International Space Station when it lacked the kit to do so itself for some years.

Moscow's mess may soon look worse, though, as India will this week try to become the fourth nation to land a working craft on the Moon. The India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on Sunday revealed a planned touchdown of its Chandrayaan-3 at 18:04 IST on August 23 (12:34 UTC).

The Chandrayaan-3 mission comprises a lander and a rover. The mission was scheduled to take 42 days for its journey from Terra to Luna. Luna 25, by contrast, tried to make the trip in nine days.®

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