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Russia Is About To Launch Its First Moon Rocket In Nearly 50 Years

6 minute read

The last time Russia sent a spacecraft to the moon, Gerald Ford was in the White House, Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” was the U.S.’s number one hit, and a gallon of gas cost ¢0.57. That spacecraft, Luna 24, lifted off on Aug. 9, 1976, landed in the moon’s Mare Crisium (Sea of Crisis), and returned to Earth on Aug. 22, 1976, carrying 170 gm (6 oz.) of lunar soil. Oh, and it actually wasn’t Russia that launched Luna 24 at all; it was the Soviet Union, which still had 15 years to live before its ultimate fall on Dec. 25, 1991.

This Friday, Aug. 11, after an interregnum of 47 years, a spacecraft launched from the former-Soviet, current-Russian nation hopes to at last return to the moon. The ship, Luna 25, will aim to make history by becoming the first spacecraft from any country to land in the moon’s south pole.  The region is considered prime real estate for future human explorers, since it is believed to harbor abundant deposits of water ice in permanently shadowed craters. The ice could be harvested and melted down for drinking water, oxygen, and even hydrogen-oxygen rocket fuel.

But Luna 25 is in a foot race for the first-to-the-south-pole honor. On July 14, India launched its Chandrayaan 3 lunar rover, which is targeting the same region of the moon but taking a more roundabout route to get there—flying a series of ever-widening orbits around the Earth until it reaches the vicinity of the moon—as opposed to Luna 25’s faster, more as-the-crow-flies trajectory. Both Chandrayaan 3 and Luna 25 are anticipating landing on or about Aug. 23. But anything from delays in Luna 25’s countdown to technical problems that change the timing of Chandrayaan 3’s lunar descent could throw things off.

While both countries would like the bragging rights of being first, neither is worried about one mission getting in the way of the other. "There is no danger that they interfere with each other or collide,” Roscosmos—Russia’s NASA—said in a statement. “There is enough space for everyone on the moon."

Read more: India Hopes to Boost Its Space Legacy With Latest Moon Rocket Blastoff

At first, there wasn’t going to be any race at all. Luna 25 had been scheduled for launch in October 2021, but first, technical snafus slowed things down. Then the war in Ukraine did too: The European Space Agency (ESA), had planned to include a navigation camera aboard the spacecraft, but pulled out of the deal after the Russian invasion. That left Roscosmos to scramble for a replacement component, which delayed the launch further.

At last Luna 25 is on the pad, scheduled to be launched in the early hours of Friday morning from Russia’s new—indeed, still-under-construction—Vostochny Cosmodrome in the country’s far-eastern Amur Oblast region. The rocket that will carry the spacecraft is one of the country’s workhorse Soyuz boosters. The Soyuz brand has a reputation for flying true, and the hope is that this one will too, because it will be lofting an impressive payload.

Luna 25 weighs 1,750 kg (3,858 lbs) fully fueled, and is a two-stage ship. The bottom stage carries the vehicle’s four landing legs, its engine, and propellant tanks. The upper stage is a much more complicated piece of hardware. In addition to the ship’s energy-producing solar panels, it also houses no fewer than eight different scientific instruments, including a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to study the make-up of the moon’s regolith—or soil; an infrared spectrometer to look for surface water ice; a panoramic imaging system; and a 1.6 m (5.25 ft.) arm with a scoop at the end. The arm and scoop will allow Luna 25 to dig into the regolith and collect samples, which will be transferred to a chamber within the ship, broken down by laser and analyzed more closely than the gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers can.

"The Luna-25 will practice soft landing, take and analyze soil samples, and conduct long-term scientific research," said Roscosmos in a statement.

Sticking that soft landing is easy to promise but hard to achieve. In March of this year, Japanese aerospace company ispace attempted a soft lunar landing, only to have the spacecraft crash in the last 10 m (33 ft.) of its descent. In April of 2019, Israel’s Bersheet spacecraft met a similar end, after it spun out of control when it was just 149 m (489 ft.) above the lunar surface. In September that same year, India’s Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft successfully achieved lunar orbit, but the lander it sent down to the surface crashed when its braking thrusters failed.

Read more: Inside NASA’s Struggle to Launch America Back to the Moon

There are a lot of things that make landing on the moon so difficult: The lack of any atmosphere makes parachute descent impossible; the irregular, boulder-strewn surface can require last-second changes in trajectory; the powdery regolith kicks up thick clouds of dust that can blind descent cameras; and so-called mascons, or mass concentrations—dense, metallic deposits left by ancient meteorites buried beneath the surface—can make lunar gravity irregular, potentially throwing off the trajectory as a spacecraft descends.

As aerospace engineer Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo, of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., told Live Science: "So many things have to happen in exactly the right order. If any one of them doesn't, that's when trouble starts."

If things do happen in the right order and Luna 25 lands safely, the spacecraft is expected to operate for up to a year before succumbing to the extreme lunar cold, which, as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has determined, can plunge as low as -246°C (-410°F) in the polar region. Success for Luna 25 could portend success for future Russian moon missions. Roscosmos is hoping to launch Luna 26—an orbiter that will scan the surface for more usable deposits of water ice—in 2027. Luna 27—another lander that will study the polar region with an even bigger suite of instruments than Luna 25 has—will follow in a yet-to-be-announced year. That mission, however, could be in jeopardy because it too was intended to be a collaboration with the ESA—a partnership which is now in doubt as the war in Ukraine continues to rage.

But Earthly politics, punishing lunar cold, and the considerable challenges of landing two tons of terrestrial metal softly on the surface of another world notwithstanding, Russia is in the moon game again. For lunar fans with a soft spot for the old U.S.-Soviet space race, it’s good to have them back.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com