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Cosmic karma: Russia loses Moon race to India due to sanctions, underfunding and mismanagement

In recent weeks, news about space exploration has dominated the front pages of all major global publications: the Indian lunar rover Pragyan, delivered to the Moon as part of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, successfully made a soft landing, captured a series of valuable photos and conducted research before going into hibernation until the end of September, in an attempt to endure the lunar night. The news headlines could have featured the Russian Luna-25, marking Russia's triumphant return to the Moon half a century later, but the Russian station crashed just two days before the scheduled landing. Commentator Vitaliy Yegorov explains how Russia, vying for the title of space leader, lost to India, despite Roscosmos's more advanced capabilities in space exploration.

A quiet gambit

Today, Russia, along with the United States and China, stands among the world's top three leaders in space exploration. This status is primarily owed to the Soviet legacy of manned spaceflight and heavy rockets. However, when it comes to interplanetary space exploration, Roscosmos consistently faces challenges, including insufficient funding for such missions and difficulties in their execution. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, only three Russian automated interplanetary stations were launched from Earth, and two of them, Mars-96 and Phobos-Grunt, ended up in the Pacific Ocean. The third was Luna-25, which proved to be much more successful than its predecessors and came close to reaching the Moon. Still, compared to lunar missions by other countries, its final outcome doesn't appear as a significant achievement.

In fact, India surpassed Russia in lunar exploration back in 2008 when it placed a small research spacecraft, Chandrayaan 1, in lunar orbit. India achieved its next interplanetary success near Mars in 2014 with the Mars Orbiter Mission. Russian scientists were actively studying Mars at that time in collaboration with Europeans and Americans, so they didn't perceive a serious threat to their authority. India then set its sights on the lunar pole, where Russia's Luna-25 also aimed to land. India had a chance to outpace Russia in landing near the lunar pole in 2019 when the Chandrayaan 2 automated station was sent to the Moon's surface. During that mission, Indian engineers faced a setback, but they managed to extract valuable experience from it.

So, why did Chandrayaan 3 successfully complete its mission while Luna-25 crashed?

Ambition amidst poverty

Indian specialists have pursued a path of developing space exploration from simple to complex. Having established themselves in low Earth orbit, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) set its sights on lunar frontiers. Launching a spacecraft into lunar orbit is easier than gently landing it on the surface of Earth's natural satellite. In the former case, an acceptable margin of error can be measured in tens of kilometers, whereas in the latter, it's a matter of mere meters. Chandrayaan 1 not only reached its intended orbit but also released the Moon Impact Probe, an impactor that didn't require a soft landing. The experience gained from the first mission was then directed toward the development of the Chandrayaan 2 lander. Although it lost control at an altitude of 2 kilometers above the surface, Chandrayaan 3 successfully completed its landing program in 2023.

Russian interplanetary programs couldn't follow the path of a beginner. These projects were undertaken under the weight of the “authority of the past,” and the title of the successor to Soviet space exploration prevented them from tackling simple tasks because they seemed like a repetition of past achievements. On the other hand, there wasn't enough funding allocated to scientific space endeavors to create small, unambitious projects that could provide young specialists with valuable practical experience (Russia is significantly wealthier than India, but science is evidently not a top priority today). Hence, there was a need to find a compromise between cutting-edge research and financial constraints.

Russian interplanetary programs couldn't follow the path of a beginner

To some extent, the “curse of a great space power” was overcome with Luna-25 when it was positioned as a return to the lost experience of lunar landings. Although the logic of progression from simple to complex would have suggested launching an orbital probe first, instead of a lander, Roscosmos planned for the orbital Luna-26 to follow the landing of Luna-25. The decision to prioritize landing over orbit, it seems, was linked to more ambitious scientific objectives on the lunar polar surface. Moreover, not only the United States but also China, Japan, and India had already launched satellites to the Moon, making it difficult to claim precedence in lunar orbit.

Focusing on the task

ISRO announced its lunar program in 2003. After the launch of Chandrayaan 1, the Indians initially planned to collaborate with Roscosmos, expecting them to create a descent module for their lunar rover. However, they lost several years waiting for this to materialize. By 2013, India decided to move independently towards the lunar surface, and by 2019, Chandrayaan 2 was on its way. After a mishap with Chandrayaan 2, Chandrayaan 3 successfully landed in 2023. This means that it took four to five years from the decision to launch to the actual launch.

Luna-25, on the other hand, took four times longer to reach its launch date. Originally named Luna-Globe, it was included in the Federal Space Program for 2005-2015. Before this period ended, Roscosmos was obligated to launch its first spacecraft to the Moon and develop subsequent missions. However, Russian space enterprises were focused on Mars, specifically its moon, Phobos, instead of the Moon. It was anticipated that the design of the spacecraft Phobos-Grunt would serve as the basis for other interplanetary missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, and asteroids.

After the failure of Phobos-Grunt, it became evident that this approach wouldn't work, and each direction had to be pursued separately or abandoned altogether. Luna-25, Luna-26, and Luna-27 had to be rescheduled as part of a new Federal Space Program, this time until 2024. Despite the delays, Luna-25 remained a low priority for Roscosmos for a long time due to the lack of significant international involvement. After Phobos-Grunt, Russia became involved in the ambitious European project ExoMars, aimed at answering the question of whether there was or is life on Mars. Significant work was also underway in astrophysics on the Spectrum-RG space observatory with substantial German involvement. All these projects were managed by a single organization, the Lavochkin Scientific and Production Association. It wasn't until 2019 that engineers could adequately allocate their efforts to Luna-25, and four years later, the spacecraft was finally launched.

Tech continuity

If you were to place Chandrayaan-1, -2, and -3 side by side, you would notice their external similarities, even though the first one is orbital, and the subsequent ones are landers. The second and third spacecraft are essentially twins. This evolutionary approach simultaneously saves development costs and enhances program reliability through the use of tested components.

Luna-25, on the other hand, has virtually no technological connection to its Soviet predecessors. Furthermore, during its development, it underwent at least two major “restructurings”: one after the Phobos-Grunt incident in 2011 and another after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, which led to sanctions on space electronics. Moreover, the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 resulted in another “restructuring” for subsequent “Lunas” due to a new wave of sanctions.

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 resulted in another “restructuring” for subsequent “Lunas” due to a new wave of sanctions

After sanctions

The development of oxygen-hydrogen rocket engines by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) from 1992 to 2011 was met with sanctions from the United States. The U.S. saw this as a possible threat to the non-proliferation of rocket technology. However, ISRO overcame this challenge and successfully built its engines, making the sanctions irrelevant. Meanwhile, ISRO and NASA had started to cooperate in the field of lunar exploration. For instance, Chandrayaan 1 carried two American scientific instruments to detect water in the lunar soil. After 2011, India was able to access the global market for its spacecraft components without any restrictions.

In contrast, Roscosmos found itself under sanctions after 2014, and in 2022, the restrictions were further tightened. This means that all the progress made in the 2000s, particularly concerning onboard electronics, became nearly obsolete. Work had to restart from scratch, both in terms of sourcing necessary components and programming them. Following the Phobos-Grunt incident, it was decided to use the onboard computer from a modern GLONASS-K satellite for Luna-25. However, it contained over 50% of foreign components, which became inaccessible in 2014. The situation only worsened after 2022. It appears that Roscosmos may no longer be capable of reproducing Luna-25. At least, the launch dates for Luna-26 and Luna-27 were pushed to 2027-2028, even before the incident involving Luna-25.

The situation only worsened after 2022. Roscosmos may no longer be capable of reproducing Luna-25

Most likely, it was the sanctions, particularly the “import-substituted” Bius-L device, that led to the demise of Luna-25. Its readings were supposed to ensure the timely shutdown of the braking engine, but the engine continued to operate, which ultimately resulted in the collision with the Moon.

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