Making sense of Luna 25

At the outset, let’s hope the unfortunate demise of Russia’s Luna 25 mission to the moon will finally silence the social media brigade that’s been calling it a competitor to India’s Chandrayaan 3 – although I wouldn’t put it past some to thump their chests over the latter succeeding where the former couldn’t. To understand why it never made sense to claim CY 3 and Luna 25 were in a race, I highly recommend Jatan Mehta’s points.

With this behind us: there are several interesting ways to slice what happened to Luna 25, beyond the specific technical points of failure on the spacecraft. Two seem particularly notable, to my mind.

First, since it became clear that Luna 25 had erred with an orbit-lowering manoeuvre on August 19, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, couldn’t communicate with it until the moon was over Russia, which in turn narrowed the window Roscosmos had to troubleshoot and fix the issue. The reason Russia had this problem is because it went to war, provoking stringent sanctions from many countries worldwide, including negating opportunities to make use of a global communications network to stay in touch with Luna 25.

On the other hand, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will have assistance from the European and American space agencies to keep track of Chandrayaan 3.

The second is that, against the backdrop of the war and the consequent sanctions, Russia’s reputation as a space power is at stake. Luna 25 was in the works for more than two decades (initially under the name ‘Luna-Glob’) before it launched. When Russian’s lander-based Fobos-Grunt mission to Mars failed in 2012 – it couldn’t perform an orbit-raising manoeuvre around earth and fell back – the country decided that it wouldn’t be able to provide a lander as agreed to ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission by 2015, so ISRO decided to develop its own lander (whose abilities will be tested for the second time come August 23).

(This legacy is yet another reason the coincidental attempts by Luna 25 and Chandrayaan 3 to soft-land on the moon was never a race.)

Fobos-Grunt’s failure together with other commitments further delayed the launch of Luna 25. One of these commitments was a lander for the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ExoMars mission, to deliver a rover named ‘Rosalind Franklin’ on Mars. But ESA terminated the deal in 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine, postponing the mission to at least 2028. Finally, by the late 2010s, Luna 25 was ready.

Taken together, Russia wasn’t able to successfully undertake an interplanetary mission since Phobos 2 in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to the events of yesterday, this dubious record is now extended to 34 years – an unexpected turn of events for the country that launched the world’s first satellite. It also continues to delay the intended purpose of Luna 25 according to a Roscosmos statement: to “ensure Russia’s guaranteed access to the moon’s surface”.

Russia has also staunchly denied allegations that its economy is groaning under the weight of the sanctions imposed by the West, but its ability to recover from the failure and plan the next mission will surely be affected by limitations on what components it can import.

As the world’s spacefaring countries are getting the moon back in their collective sight, the US and China are leading the line-drawing on this occasion. But Russia – whose Luna 25 was ultimately intended as a statement that the country’s space power status is not on the decline – drew one of its own and paid a price for it.

(To whomever this message appeals, I hope filmmakers in India take note, since they have often villainised the notion of ISRO seeking or receiving help from other agencies in films and TV shows.)