Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Luna-25 – Russia’s Race to the Moon

Written by Darshan M (Grade 10)

Russia has initiated its Luna-25 lunar mission, marking a return after nearly five decades. Remarkably, this launch coincides with India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission set for the moon, and Russia aims to achieve lunar arrival ahead of India. Around a month ago India launched Chandrayaan-3. Now the thing about to unfold is, the moon missions of India and Russia are going to land on the moon around the same time. There is very strong competition in this race. However, could it be that the key participants in this competition are exclusively India and Russia? Who precisely are the contenders in this race? How is it possible for Russia to achieve such rapid lunar progress despite launching a month later than us? Is this competition solely confined to the pursuit of space exploration, or does it also hold geopolitical implications? Can India emerge triumphant in this contest? Russia holds the edge with superior technology, a more substantial budget, and extensive experience over the years. Are there any inherent advantages that India possesses?

On 14th July 2023, around a month ago, India launched Chandrayaan-3. It is a matter of pride for us. Our moon is 3,84,000 km far from Earth and to cover this distance, Chandrayaan will take 40 days. It is estimated that we will land on the Moon on 23rd August 2023. But Russia just launched its lunar mission, in August, around a month after us. But still, experts believe that maybe Luna-25 will reach the moon before us. Our target is 23rd August and Luna will target landing between 17th to 23rd August where does this logic come from? Is the moon closer to Russia? The job for which we needed 40 days, how can Russia complete that job in 10 days? How can Russia go so fast?

The budget of Chandrayaan-3 is ₹615 crore. In comparison, the budget of Luna-25 is more than ₹1,600 crore. Due to the low budget of Chandrayaan, we do not take a direct route. We take a longer route. At the same time, last time the Chandrayaan-2 mission was launched with the objective of a soft landing on the moon. But we failed in the last leg. So this time we cannot take the risk of failure. Using complex braking manoeuvres, we will gradually slow our speed. The second reason is fuel. Russia’s Soyuz rocket is one of the most powerful rockets in the world, whose cost is double that of PSLV-C3. And to date, this rocket has done more successful launches than us. In terms of experience, power, and technology, Russia is far ahead of us. The thrust required to reach the moon can be produced by the Russian rocket itself. Where we have to take the help of Earth’s gravity. The third reason is that Chandrayaan-3 is heavy. At the time of lift-off, Luna’s mass was 1750 kg, whereas Chandrayaan-3 was more than double that. This means a mass of 3,900 kg is getting transported to the moon. Chandrayaan along with the lander also has a rover. Which after landing on the moon, can cover more area. But Luna only has a lander, not a rover. Our mission will be active only for 14 days and Russia’s for a whole year. That’s possible due to a higher power supply and better thermal control system. With better technology, more money, and less payload due to a combination of these, Luna is faster than Chandrayaan. Going by the looks of it, the Russian mission and ours, are quite similar – our landing side is the same, dates are also the same.

On the South Pole of the Moon, there may be a high concentration of water ice. From this water, we can get hydrogen and oxygen. Due to this in the future drinking water, breathable air, and even rocket fuel can be produced. Luna will land on such a moon crater that is some 500 km away from the South Pole. There is no rover in the Luna mission. So after landing, there is no possibility to move here and there, so the location of the landing is very important. There’s a robotic arm attached to the Luna mission, which will dig down to 50 cm and find traces of water. Photos of the lunar surface will be taken, and the impact of solar wind on the moon will be studied. Laser reflectors will be placed, So that the distance between the moon and Earth can be measured accurately. With that for the upcoming space missions, Russia has to test new technologies. Back-to-back in 2024 and 2025, Luna-26 and Luna-27 are also going to be launched. 

China, in 2030 wants to send its astronauts to the moon in which this Russian data will prove very important. In the moon landing, China’s track record is very good. In 2013 and 2018, China did a moon landing successfully. Talking about politics, the biggest rival of China and Russia is America. After 1972, no country tried to send astronauts to the moon. But now America is going to send astronauts. And the destination is also the same, the South Pole. That is, if you want to go to the moon, you have to take such a big risk, then there is only one area, which is worthy of this mission. The South Pole of the moon. Russian scientists also believe that this mission is quite risky, in which the chances of success are only 70%. Spending 1,600 crore to take such a big risk is not an easy thing. The roots of every space race are hidden in geopolitics. 

Russia, in 47 years, never sent a lunar mission, so why now? Reason is not just space, reason is a message. A message that Russia wants to give to the whole world, especially to America. Today, America considers only and only China as its real rival. In the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, America captured the position of the world’s only superpower. But today’s Russia is a reminder to America that just 30 years from now, they had given a tough fight to America. Today China and Russia together can beat America in every field. In the history books, America is always considered the king of space.

But Russia started the space race. Then be it Sputnik, i.e., the first space satellite, or Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut. Today, through the Russia-Ukraine war, Russia has established that they are still ambitious. And these ambitions are not just limited to Earth’s territory. They will not sit quietly with a loser’s tag. Then be it Cold War, geopolitics, or be it space war. Russia is still as competitive as it used to be during the Cold War. Earlier Russian rockets were launched from Kazakhstan’s base. And Luna-25 has been launched from Eastern Russia. That is, Russia, despite Western Sanctions can also handle challenging projects like space missions. Where economists around the world predicted that Russia would lose the perception war, and then it will self-destruct by getting bankrupt, for them this risky project of ₹1,600 crores, is a befitting reply. This is a very big message, for America as well as for India, that in terms of technology, Russia is miles ahead of a developing country like India. It is faster than us and also advanced. At the same time for the people of Russia, it can be a proud moment. For the last year and a half, due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the people of both countries faced a lot of uncertainty. Perhaps this space mission can be a relief for them. If it’s a matter of perception, of power, of technology so Russia is not only racing with India but also, with America and China.

If you look at the data and see the previous experience, then it seems, yes, Russia will reach the moon before India, but scientists around the world say that for Russia, without a rover, landing in one place, by digging only 50 cm, getting water is next to impossible and India has better chances of making this mission successful. After the failure of Chandrayaan-2, we have learned a lot. ISRO chief S. Somanath says, that if the sensors fail this time, if the engine fails, even then, we will be able to safely touchdown. If only it was about national pride, then after Chandrayaan-2, within 6 months we could have launched the next mission. But we waited. Improved our algorithms and launched now, in 2023, when our scientists were fully prepared. This is proof that India is not interested in any race the answer to whether India can win the space race depends on where we draw the finishing line. Which achievements do we consider real achievements. If only reaching first means winning the race, then the race has ended long ago. But if landing on the moon at the lowest budget is a victory for us, then yes, India can win this race. The focus of India, the media, and our people should not be on who reaches first, but on how efficiently they achieve their goals. Because space is not a sprint, it is a marathon race. Our competition is not with anyone else but with ourselves. To challenge yourself, to set new goals for yourself, and to achieve them, is what winning a race is all about. 

Featured Image Courtesy – Scientific American


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