Embattled Russia to seek water on the Moon

Russia is preparing a return to the Moon for the first time in almost half a century, as it races to be the first power to make a soft landing on the lunar south pole – which may hold significant deposits of water ice.

A Soyuz 2.1v rocket carrying the Luna-25 craft will blast off from the Vostochny cosmodrome, 3,450 miles (5,550 km) east of Moscow, on Friday at 0211 Moscow time and is due to touch down on the Moon on Aug. 23rd, Russia's space agency said.

The Russian lunar mission, the first since 1976, is racing against India, which sent up its Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander last month, and more broadly with the United States and China, which both have advanced lunar exploration programmes.

"The last one was in 1976 so there's a lot riding on this," Asif Siddiqi, Professor of History at Fordham University, told Reuters.

"Russia's aspirations towards the Moon are mixed up in a lot of different things. I think first and foremost, it's an expression of national power on the global stage."

US astronaut Neil Armstrong gained renown in 1969 for being the first person to walk on the Moon but it was the Soviet Union's Luna-2 mission which was the first spacecraft to reach the Moon's surface in 1959 and the Luna-9 mission in 1966 was the first to do a soft landing on the Moon.

But Moscow then focused on exploring Mars, and since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has failed to send probes beyond the earth's orbit. There is much riding on the Luna-25 mission – especially as the Kremlin says the West's sanctions over the Ukraine war have failed to cripple the Russian economy.

Failed ambitions

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia's Roscosmos were supposed to send a European rover to the Red Planet using a Russian launcher in 2022. The mission, dubbed ExoMars, hit a roadblock after Russia invaded Ukraine and ESA suspended its cooperation with Moscow.

Immediately following the ESA’s announcement, the then-head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin said that Europeans could not solve mission-related technical problems. However, leaked documents showed Roscosmos had issues of its own.

A leaked presentation shows the organizations behind the project had a difficult time cooperating.

Lavochkin, a state-owned defense and civilian aerospace company and the main contractor for ExoMars, complained about the conduct of Information Satellite Systems (ISS), the company behind the Russian GPS, the GLONASS.

Leaked documents showed that Russia's Space Research Institute ran into funding problems for the ExoMars mission, citing inter-agency bureaucracy as a key obstacle.

The search for Moon water

Major powers such as the United States, China, India, Japan, and the European Union have all been probing the Moon over recent years, though a Japanese lunar landing failed last year and an Israeli mission failed in 2019.

No country has yet made a soft landing on the south pole. An Indian mission, the Chandrayaan-2, failed in 2019.

Rough terrain makes a landing difficult, but the prize of discovering water ice there could be historic: quantities of ice could be used to extract fuel and oxygen, as well as for drinking water.

Russian space agency Roskosmos said that it would take five days to fly to the Moon. The craft would spend 5-7 days in lunar orbit before descending on one of three possible landing sites near the pole – a timetable that implies that it could match or narrowly beat its Indian rival to the Moon's surface.

Residents of a village in Russia's far east will be evacuated from their homes at 7.30 a.m. on Friday because of a "one in a million chance" that one of the rocket stages that launches Luna-25 could fall to earth there, a local official said.