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Russia’s first lunar mission in decades has ended in failure with its Luna 25 spacecraft crashing into the moon’s surface.
The incident, a blow to Russia’s space ambitions, happened after communication with the robotic spacecraft was interrupted.
Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said it lost touch with Luna 25 on Saturday around 2:57 p.m. Moscow time.
“The measures taken on August 19 and 20 to search for the device and get into contact with it did not yield any results,” the space agency reported.
According to a “preliminary analysis,” Luna-25 “switched to an off-design orbit” before the collision, Roscosmos said.
It was not immediately clear what caused the crash.
A specially formed commission will investigate the reasons for the loss of Luna 25, the agency added.
The news comes a day after the spacecraft reported an “emergency situation” as it was trying to enter a pre-landing orbit, according to Roscosmos.
“During the operation, an emergency situation occurred on board the automatic station, which did not allow the maneuver to be performed with the specified parameters,” Roscosmos shared in a Telegram post on Saturday.
The spacecraft was meant to complete Russia’s first lunar landing mission in 47 years. The country’s last lunar lander, Luna 24, landed on the surface of the moon on August 18, 1976.
The Luna 25 probe launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Amur Oblast on August 10, setting the vehicle on a swift trip to the moon.
Luna 25’s trajectory allowed it to surpass India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander, which launched in mid-July, on the way to the lunar surface.
Decades in the making
Also called the Luna-Glob-Lander, Luna 25 was on a journey to study the composition of the moon’s soil and the very thin lunar exosphere, or the moon’s scant atmosphere, for one year.
The mission’s trajectory allowed it to surpass India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander, which launched in mid-July.
Both spacecraft were headed for the moon’s south pole region.
Much of the interest in the area comes down to the fact that it remains one of the least explored regions of the moon. The geographical area is also where scientists believe water is stored on the lunar surface in the form of ice, frozen solid in shadowy craters shielded from the sun.
Characterizations that India and Russia were racing for the lunar south pole, however, weren’t entirely accurate, according to astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian. He pointed out that both projects have been in the works for more than a decade.
Initially, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency planned to partner on Luna 25, as well as Luna 26, Luna 27 and the ExoMars rover.
But that partnership ceased in April 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the ESA Council moved to “discontinue cooperative activities with Russia.”
Luna 25 had eight scientific instruments, including specialized devices called spectrometers. One was intended to study the lunar soil, and another to detect surface water, according to NASA.
India’s Chandrayaan-3, meanwhile, has a lander, propulsion module and rover — an exploratory capability Russia did not have. The small, robotic vehicle can traverse the lunar terrain.
Chandrayaan-3’s landing could mark the first successful lunar touchdown for the country. India’s most recent attempt ended in failure when Chandrayaan-2 crash-landed in September 2019.
Chandrayaan-3 is slated to attempt its landing as soon as Wednesday, August 23.
The stakes for Russia’s space program
Luna 25 was seen as a proving ground for future robotic lunar exploration missions by Roscosmos. Several future Luna spacecraft were slated to make use of the same design.
If it had been successful, Luna 25 would have marked a huge stride for the country’s civil space program — which some experts say has faced issues for decades — and demonstrated that it could still perform in high-profile, high-stakes missions.
“They were having a lot of problems with quality control, corruption, with funding,” said Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the peaceful exploration of outer space, during an interview Friday.
News that Russia experienced issues with its spacecraft elicited sympathy that reverberated throughout the space community.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s former head of science, said in a social media post that no one in the industry “wishes bad onto other explorers.”
“We are reminded that landing on any celestial object is anything but easy & straightforward,” he said in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “Just because others managed to do it decades ago, does not guarantee success today.”