Russia heads back to the Moon with Luna 25

Fire from the engines of a Russian Soyuz rocket as it lifted off with the Luna 25 spacecraft heading for the Moon.
Enlarge / Fire from the engines of a Russian Soyuz rocket as it lifted off with the Luna 25 spacecraft heading for the Moon.

Russia’s space agency successfully launched a robotic spacecraft Thursday on a journey to the Moon, the country’s first lunar explorer since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976.

The Luna 25 mission lifted off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, located in Russia’s Far East, at 7:10 pm ET (23:10 UTC). Heading east, a Soyuz-2.1b rocket propelled Luna 25 through an overcast cloud deck and into the stratosphere, then shed its four first-stage boosters about two minutes into the flight. A core stage engine fired a few minutes longer, and the Soyuz rocket jettisoned its payload shroud.

A third-stage engine fired next, then gave way to a Fregat upper-stage to place Luna 25 in orbit around Earth. The Fregat engine fired a second time to send the nearly 4,000-pound (1.8-metric ton) lunar probe on a roughly five-day trip toward the Moon. Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, declared the launch a success less than 90 minutes after liftoff, shortly after the Luna 25 spacecraft separated from the Fregat upper stage.

This is historic for Russia’s space program. Russia hasn’t launched a lunar mission in nearly 50 years and hasn’t had a mission successfully fly to any other planetary body since 1988, despite several attempts. Thursday’s launch was a major moment for Luna 25, but its departure from Earth on a reliable and proven Soyuz rocket was not the riskiest part of the mission. That will come in a couple of weeks when Luna 25 begins its powered descent toward the lunar surface.

A big lift for a fading space power

Russia would like the Luna 25 mission to rekindle the country’s once-stellar record in the realm of interplanetary exploration. Luna 24, the Soviet-era mission that was Russia’s last probe to land on the Moon, returned lunar soil samples to Earth on a robotic spacecraft in August 1976, nearly four years after NASA’s last Apollo landing with astronauts. That feat was not repeated until China’s Chang’e 5 sample return mission scooped up lunar soil and brought it back to Earth in 2020.

The Soviet Union was a pioneer in exploring the Solar System. The Luna 9 lunar lander achieved the first-ever controlled touchdown on another celestial body in 1966, three years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon on Apollo 11. While the Soviets lost the Space Race of the 1960s to the United States, Russian probes landed on the Moon seven times to deploy robot rovers and bring home samples.

In 1970, the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 spacecraft became the first mission to land on Venus. One year later, the Russian Mars 3 lander arrived at Mars, becoming the first probe to successfully reach the Martian surface, but Mars 3 stopped transmitting a couple of minutes later.

A view of Venus taken in 1982 by the Soviet Union's Venera 13 mission, one of several Soviet landers that reached the planet's surface.
Enlarge / A view of Venus taken in 1982 by the Soviet Union’s Venera 13 mission, one of several Soviet landers that reached the planet’s surface.

The Soviet Union’s last deep space mission, Phobos 2, launched in 1988. Phobos 2 entered orbit around Mars, but ground teams lost contact with the spacecraft as it approached its moon, Phobos. That was the last time a Russian spacecraft was so close to success on a voyage to another world.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sent Russia’s economy into a tailspin. Meager funding for the Russian space program went toward maintaining the Mir space station in low-Earth orbit and joining NASA to build the International Space Station, primarily with hardware and spare parts from Mir’s development.

The Russians launched two more shots at Mars in 1996 and 2011, but both failed to leave low-Earth orbit. Several European Mars missions have successfully launched on Russian rockets, but those relied on European technology to reach the red planet and operate there.

It’s clear that leaders in the US space program view China, and not Russia, as the more serious contender to potentially beat NASA’s Artemis program back to the Moon. Russia and the United States are inextricably linked together on the International Space Station, but they are going their separate ways on lunar missions.

“We’re in a space race with China,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said earlier this week.

Nelson wished Russia well on the Luna 25 mission, but said: “I don’t think that a lot of people, at this point, would say that Russia is actually ready to be landing cosmonauts on the Moon in the timeframe that we’re talking about going to the Moon, or that possibly China would be.”

Russia doesn’t want to stop with Luna 25. There are plans for a Luna 26 orbiter mission, officially projected to launch in 2027, followed by two more ambitious robotic landing expeditions. But those launches are still years away, and given how long it took for Russia to ready Luna 25 for flight, it’s probably a safe bet future Luna missions will be delayed more, if they fly at all.

An agreement between Russia and China on robotic and eventual human lunar exploration in 2021 was seen by many as an initiative to potentially rival the US-led Artemis program. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Vostochny Cosmodrome, where Luna 25 launched on Thursday, and vowed to “resume the lunar program” abandoned by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

But talk of cooperation between China and Russia on the International Lunar Research Station has faded. China has invited other countries to join the Moon program, most recently Venezuela. And Russia’s role in the Chinese lunar program was absent when China earlier this year unveiled its architecture for landing its astronauts on the Moon by 2030.

A report released by the Center for Strategic & International Studies last December found that the Russia-China partnership in space “may well be exaggerated,” citing declining Russian space budgets, the drain on Russia’s space program caused by the war in Ukraine, and persisting mistrust between the two countries.