By Kenneth Chang, Alina Lobzina and Anton Troianovski/New York Times
New York, Aug. 20: A Russian robotic spacecraft that was headed to the lunar surface has crashed into the moon, Russia’s space agency said on Sunday, citing the results of a preliminary investigation a day after it lost contact with the vehicle.
It is the latest setback in spaceflight for a country that during the Cold War became the first nation, as the Soviet Union, to put a satellite, a man and then a woman in orbit.
The Luna-25 lander, Russia’s first space launch to the moon’s surface since the 1970s, entered lunar orbit last Wednesday and was supposed to land as early as Monday. At 2:10 p.m. on Saturday afternoon Moscow time, according to Roscosmos, the state corporation that oversees Russia’s space activities, the spacecraft fired its engine to enter an orbit that would set it up for a lunar landing. But an unexplained “emergency situation” occurred.
On Sunday, Roscosmos said that it had lost contact with the spacecraft 47 minutes after the start of the engine firing. Attempts to re-establish communications failed, and Luna-25 had deviated from its planned orbit and “ceased its existence as a result of a collision with the lunar surface,” Roscosmos said.
An interagency commission would be formed to investigate the reasons for the failure, it added.
Luna-25, which launched on Aug. 11, was aiming to be the first mission to reach the moon’s south polar region. Government space programs and private companies all over Earth are interested in that part of the moon because they believe it may contain water ice that could be used by astronauts in the future.
The main purpose of Luna-25 was to test technology for landing on the moon, and the loss of the lander during a less risky phase of the mission will add scrutiny to Russia’s space struggles.
For missions headed to the moon’s surface, the two most nerve-racking moments are the rocket launch from Earth and the landing itself. Three lunar landing attempts in the past four years — by India, an Israeli nonprofit and a Japanese company — all successfully maneuvered in orbit around the moon before failing during the last few minutes descending to the surface.
When missions are lost during orbital engine firings, the cause often turns out to be shoddy manufacturing and inadequate testing. Those shortcomings were the basis for the failure of Russia’s last major robotic interplanetary probe, Phobos-Grunt, in 2011. Another factor could be embarrassing human error, like when NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere in 1999 because of a mix-up between metric and imperial units.
Natan Eismont, a senior scientist of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which led the scientific operations of Luna-25, said the spacecraft’s engine had not performed as designed during burns to adjust the spacecraft’s course.
“What I can say, and it was noticed by outside observers, that the correction somewhat deviated from what has been stated,” said Dr. Eismont, who said he was not directly involved with the mission.
This mission controllers “managed to cope with it successfully until the last maneuver,” Dr. Eismont said. But the last burn, to move Luna-25 to an orbit ahead of landing that passed within 11 miles of the surface, required a big push that did not go as planned. “Most likely the braking thrust was either too strong or it was in a wrong direction.”
Dr. Eismont suggested perhaps the mission managers should have taken more time.
“It’s up to the immediate participants to make these decisions” of proceeding toward landing or remaining in the circular orbit for further troubleshooting, he said. “They made their decision, and whether it was the correct decision, let a commission decide.”
The mission’s failure may be a blow to President Vladimir V. Putin, who has used Russian achievements in space as part and parcel of his hold on power.
That is part of the Kremlin’s narrative — a compelling one for many Russians — that Russia is a great nation held back by an American-led West that is jealous of and threatened by Russia’s capabilities. The country’s state-run space industry in particular has been a valuable tool as Russia works to remake its geopolitical relationships.
“The interest in our proposals is very high,” the head of Russia’s space program, Yuri Borisov, told Mr. Putin in a televised meeting in June, describing Russia’s plan to expand space cooperation with African countries. The initiative is part of the Kremlin’s overall efforts to deepen economic and political ties with non-Western countries amid European and American sanctions.
However, coverage of the Luna-25 mission had been muted, and remained that way after the spacecraft’s apparent crash.
The 6 p.m. newscast on Sunday night on state-run Channel 1, for instance, devoted only 40 seconds to Luna-25’s premature conclusion.
“By all appearances, the Luna-25 mission has ended,” the Channel 1 anchor said, before appending a positive note: “Scientists got invaluable information about the surface of the moon, among other things.”
The vaguely optimistic tone was echoed by Anatoly Petrukovich, also of the Space Research Institute which led Luna-25’s scientific operations.
“We are working on them,” Dr. Petrukovich said to the state-run Tass news agency, referring to upcoming lunar missions, “and hope that this work won’t be slowed down but accelerated.”
In recent decades, Russia’s exploration of Earth’s solar system has fallen a long way from the heights of the Soviet era.
The last unqualified success was more than 35 years ago, when the Soviet Union was still intact. A pair of twin spacecraft, Vega 1 and Vega 2, launched six days apart. Six months later, the two spacecraft flew past Venus, each dropping a capsule that contained a lander that successfully set down on the hellish planet’s surface, as well as a balloon that, when released, floated through the atmosphere. In March 1986, the two spacecraft then passed within about 5,000 miles of Halley’s comet, taking pictures and studying the dust and gas from the comet’s nucleus.
Subsequent missions to Mars that launched in 1988 and 1996 failed.
The embarrassing nadir came in 2011 with Phobos-Grunt, which was supposed to land on Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, and bring back samples of rock and dirt to Earth. But Phobos-Grunt never made it out of Earth’s orbit. A few months later, it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.
An investigation later revealed that Russia’s financially strapped space agency had skimped on manufacturing and testing, using electronics components that had not been proven to survive the cold and radiation of space.
A photo taken from the Luna-25 during its flight shows the mission emblem and the bucket of the lunar manipulator complex, which is covered in gold foil.
An image taken by the Luna-25 spacecraft during its trip to the moon.Credit…Roscosmos, via Reuters
Otherwise, Russia has been confined to low-Earth orbit, including carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which it jointly manages with NASA.
Luna-25 was to have completed a one-year mission studying the composition of the lunar surface. It was also supposed to demonstrate technologies that would have been used in a series of robotic missions that Russia and lay the groundwork for a future lunar base that it is planning to build with China.
But the schedule for those missions — Luna 26, 27 and 28 — has already slipped years from the original timetable, and now there are likely to be further delays, especially as the Russian space program struggles, financially and technologically, because of sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Roscosmos will face a difficult decision of whether to redo the Luna-25 mission or leave the landing technology untested for now and move on to more ambitious follow-on missions. If Russia decides to re-fly Luna-25, that will likely add even more years of delay.
Although NASA and the European Space Agency continue to cooperate with Russia on the I.S.S., other joint space projects ended after the invasion of Ukraine. For the lunar missions, that means Russia needs to replace key components that were to come from Europe.
Russia has struggled to develop new space hardware, especially electronics that reliably work in the harsh conditions of outer space.
“You cannot really fly in space, or, at least, fly in space for a long time, without better electronics,” said Anatoly Zak, who publishes RussianSpaceWeb.com, which tracks Russia’s space activities. “The Soviet electronics were always backwards. They were always behind the West in this area of science and technology.”
He added: “The entire Russian space program is actually affected by this issue.”
Other ambitious Russian space plans are also behind schedule and will likely take much longer than the official pronouncements to complete.
A few days ago, Vladimir Kozhevnikov, the chief designer for Russia’s next space station, told the Interfax news agency that Oryol, a modern replacement for the venerable Soyuz capsule, would make its maiden flight in 2028.
Back in 2020, Dmitry Rogozin, then the head of Roscosmos, said that the maiden flight of Oryol would take place in 2023 — meaning that, in just three years, the launch date has slipped five years.
Another country, India, will now get the chance to land the first probe in the lunar south pole’s vicinity. Its Chandrayaan-3 mission launched in July, but it opted for a more roundabout but fuel-efficient route to the moon. It is scheduled to attempt a landing on Wednesday.
“It’s unfortunate,” Sudheer Kumar, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, said about the Russian lander’s crash. “Every space mission is very risky and highly technical.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from Delhi.