Mission to the Moon: Who will win Russian and India’s race to the lunar South Pole?
Chris Baraniuk/ BBC:
Right now, a mini space race is afoot. Two spacecraft, one Russian and the other Indian, are headed for the South Pole of the Moon – where no lander has ever successfully gone before. The Russian and Indian vehicles are on competing quests to search for water ice and potentially useful minerals that might be tucked away in the lunar dust.
Such was the timing of the crafts’ departures that they are due to reach their destinations around the same date. No one planned this showdown, it is simply a curious twist of fate – but one that has got the world watching, and wondering: who will get there first?
For decades, our reading of things that happen in space has been unavoidably shaped by the original space race of the 1960s, in which the United States and the Soviet Union vied to put a human being on the Moon. Despite the Soviet Union becoming the first nation to put a satellite in Earth orbit, launch a human into space, and land an uncrewed spacecraft on the Moon, the US grabbed the biggest prize of all when the Apollo 11 mission carried astronauts to the lunar surface. Their adventure was broadcast on TV screens around the world and it was followed by further crewed Apollo missions in subsequent years, with the last taking place in 1972. More than 50 years later, the US remains the only country to have achieved a crewed Moon landing.
The Indian lander, Chandrayaan-3, blasted off from Earth on 14 July, packed with a payload of scientific equipment as well as a small, six-wheeled rover for exploration of the lunar surface. It’s due to touch down on the lunar surface on 23 August after first sling-shotting around the Earth a few times and spending several weeks orbiting the Moon in preparation for the landing. The Russian lander, meanwhile, Luna-25, departed our planet only recently, taking off just after 2am Moscow time on 11 August (11pm GMT 10 August). It is taking a much faster, more direct route to the Moon and could reach the surface in as little as 10 days post-launch, on 21 August. Officials at the Russian space agency Roscosmos have made no secret about their desire to be first to make a soft landing at the Moon’s South Pole.
But Luna-25’s journey might take slightly longer than that, meaning Chandrayaan-3 could arrive on the Moon first, in the end. Slow and steady could win this race.
The missions, however, reflect the renewed interest in the Moon for space exploration. The recent discovery of significant pockets of water ice on our nearest celestial neighbour has excited scientists because hydrogen in the water could potentially be extracted to make rocket fuel at a future Moon base. Plus, the water might even be drinkable after treatment.
The so-called race between Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3 encapsulates a new era of lunar exploration, in which nations including the US, Israel, and China, as well as private companies, are targeting the Moon with spacecraft and forthcoming crewed missions. For many, it’s just friendly competition. And yet, a fresh chapter of human exploration is at stake. The small steps taken by individual landers and crewed missions could add up to giant leaps in conquering the Solar System in the coming decades and centuries. Who gets there first really could matter.
“It’s turned out to be more of a coincidence than anything,” says Wendy Whitman Cobb, professor of strategy and security studies at the US Air and Space Force’s Air University, referring to the timing of the Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3 missions. “But it is a very interesting coincidence.” Luna-25’s launch has been repeatedly delayed – it was originally scheduled for 2021.
India has a “leg up”, she says, since its spacecraft is already in orbit around the Moon. The Russians probably feel some pressure to get there first, though, she suggests, given their more direct route. Chandrayaan-3 is twice as heavy as Luna-25 and was also launched using a much less powerful rocket, meaning it needed to build up speed by taking large elliptical orbits around the Earth before it could swing out towards the Moon itself. Operators of the two craft will have to assure themselves of the performance of each vehicle before starting the touchdown procedure. Unexpected malfunctions could push the attempt back or scupper it entirely. They won’t know how it’s going to go, really, until they get there.National pride will probably be a factor in pushing ahead wherever possible. Russia is arguably hoping to prove its continued capabilities in space given that the country’s space programme has been affected by sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Their space industry has really, really suffered,” says Whitman Cobb.But it’s hardly a race to the Moon, as such, for Russia, says Stefania Paladini, who studies the space industry at Queen Margaret University in the UK, because the former Soviet Union succeeded in putting multiple landers and even rovers on the Moon 50 years ago. In that sense, the Russians won the race long ago and, clearly in homage to that, the name Luna-25 harks back to the last Russian lunar mission, Luna 24 in 1976.