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Friday, July 12, 2024

Russia and India Are Racing to Put Landers on the Moon

Move over, USA and China: Humankind is about to witness robotic moon landing attempts by Russia and India within a few days of each other.

Russia’s Luna-25 lander could touch down as soon as Monday, August 21. It’s the country’s first lunar mission in nearly half a century, and the first in the post-Soviet era. Two days later, on August 23, Chandrayaan-3 could become India’s first successful lunar lander. (Its predecessor failed in 2019.)

Both missions are aiming for the moon’s south pole region, a site of increasing international interest because of the presence of water ice that could be extracted for oxygen or rocket propellant. It also includes critical spots known as “peaks of eternal light,” which receive near-constant solar illumination that could power future missions and moon bases.

The 20th-century space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union has given way to a more crowded lunar competition. “I think what we are seeing now is a race for the moon, which is again political and power-based as well as technological. The difference, of course, is that today’s geopolitical reality includes many more countries and players and also commercial entities,” says Cassandra Steer, an expert on space law and space security at the Australian National University in Canberra. “India has caught up with Russia at a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time.”

Both landers come equipped with scientific instruments, including ones for studying the minerals in the lunar regolith and scanning for signs of water ice. Each four-legged lander is about the size of a small car and weighed about 3,900 pounds at liftoff—most of that weight was propellant. After departing from lunar orbit, both will make their final, autonomous descent from about 100 kilometers above the ground.

But the two have many differences. India’s craft, which will land close to the lunar south pole, includes a lander called Vikram and a small rover called Pragyan. Both are solar-powered and are designed to last for a lunar day, or about two weeks. Russia’s Luna-25 will likely land near the Boguslavsky impact crater and is intended to operate for a whole year. It will run off both solar power and its radioisotope thermoelectric generator, similar to the nuclear power source that has given the Voyager spacecraft their longevity.

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Russian and Indian authorities have made few public statements about these missions, and neither space agency responded to requests for comment from WIRED. But Roscosmos chief Yury Borisov did tell Russia’s TASS state news agency, “The goals of this mission are of purely peaceful nature.” The Indian space agency released a statement saying Chandrayaan-3 has “the objective of developing and demonstrating new technologies required for interplanetary missions.”

Roscosmos has given the lander a name that evokes Luna-24, a probe that collected lunar samples and launched them back to Earth in 1976, during the heyday of the program’s Soviet predecessor. But recently, the Russian space program has been in decline, accelerated by the nation’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the resulting international sanctions. Russia has since lost lucrative launch contracts and its role in international collaborations, like the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission planned for later this decade. The head of Roscosmos has also said Russia will withdraw from the International Space Station as early as 2028, although the nation has no immediate successor station of its own.

The troubles at Roscosmos delayed the Luna-25 mission but did not cause it to be canceled. “This project has been in development since the late 1990s. All the latest events politically, including the almost complete isolation of Russia from a technological standpoint, happened too late to affect this project,” says Anatoly Zak, creator and publisher of the independent publication RussianSpaceWeb. “Now they’re essentially competing with India, with a stationary lander. There’s no rover, there’s no attempt to return soil samples; that’s illustrative of where Russia is with its space program.”

In contrast, India’s space program, known as the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), has been on the rise. India has launched its own Earth satellites, and it sent a probe called the Mars Orbiter Mission to the Red Planet on a journey that concluded last year. The country issued a national space policy in June, intended to boost its commercial sector. In 2019, India tested an anti-satellite missile, becoming the fourth country to do so, and it has not joined the US-led moratorium on such tests, which are controversial because they fling debris throughout Earth orbit.

The Chandrayaan-3 lander is important for India’s national prestige, says Benjamin Silverstein, a research analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who recently published an opinion piece about the Indian space program. “There are only a handful of countries that have sent an object to the moon and landed it successfully. That would elevate their stature as a capable space power and a potential partner of choice,” he says.

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Russia’s and India’s space programs both have more moon missions in the works. Russia has scheduled its next lunar orbiter, Luna-26, for 2027. A larger lander, Luna-27, is to follow a year or two after that, and then a Luna-28 sample-return mission is planned for after 2030. Realistically, one should add a couple years to those official dates, Zak says.

For its part, India next plans to partner with Japan on the Lunar Polar Exploration rover, or Lupex, which could launch as early as 2026 and will examine water deposits near the south pole.

The US and China have been active on and around the moon for years. NASA and its international and commercial partners have already launched the first mission of the Artemis program. The uncrewed Artemis 1 orbited the moon in late 2022, and NASA plans to send astronauts into lunar orbit in 2024. In 2026, it plans to send people to the moon’s surface for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Ultimately, the US is gearing up for a permanent presence on the moon, including a moon base and the Lunar Gateway space station.

NASA has also invested in commercial entities, such as Astrobotic’s Griffin lander that would deliver the space agency’s Viper rover near the south pole in late 2024. (Astrobotic plans to attempt landing a smaller spacecraft in late 2023 on the inaugural flight of the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.) The US has also developed the Artemis Accords, guidelines for moon exploration and using lunar resources.

China has taken its own path with its ambitious Chang’e program. That began with a lunar orbiter in 2007 and was followed by other orbiters, a lander, and then a rover in 2019. Chang’e 5 successfully sent moon samples back to Earth in 2020. China plans Chang’e 6, another sample-return mission, for 2024, followed by the Chang’e 7 rover in 2026. Like the US, China plans to have a permanent presence on the moon with its International Lunar Research Station at the moon’s south pole, planned for construction in the 2030s.

The fact that the US and China have dominated lunar exploration over the past decade isn’t for lack of trying by others. Recent landing attempts have failed, including Japan’s Ispace lander in April and Israel’s Beresheet lander in 2019, which infamously included a payload of hardy tardigrades, or “water bears.” India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander also crashed on the moon later that year.

There’s a reason why countries want to reach key lunar sites first. While no one can own territory on the moon, according to the Outer Space Treaty, the Artemis Accords offer what some might describe as a loophole: safety zones. If someone sets up a landing pad, equipment, or infrastructure, others are expected to keep their distance from that spot in the interest of safety. This could let a country or even a company effectively claim crucial real estate, Steer says.

And earthly geopolitics are inevitably at play. It matters who lands first, and who collaborates with whom. For example, China has invited Russia to partner on its lunar research station, along with Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. India sometimes partners with the US; in June, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the White House, India became the 27th country to join the Artemis Accords.

For now, India and Russia are both positioned to take big strides in the next leg of the space race. Next week will reveal if anyone pulls ahead.

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