Russia has launched its first mission to the moon in nearly 50 years, pitting it in a space race with India, which is also aiming to land a lunar craft this month.
The launch of the Luna-25 craft to the moon on Friday was Russia’s first since 1976 when it was part of the Soviet Union and was conducted without assistance from the European Space Agency, which ended cooperation with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
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The launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Far East took place at 2:10am Moscow time Friday (23:10 GMT Thursday), according to live images broadcast by the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
The four-legged lander weighs approximately 800kg (1,750 pounds) and is due to reach lunar orbit in five days.
It will then spend between three and seven days choosing the right spot before landing in the lunar south pole area.
“For the first time in history, the lunar landing will take place on the lunar south pole. Until now, everyone has been landing in the equatorial zone,” senior Roscosmos official Alexander Blokhin said in a recent interview.
The lander is expected to reach the moon’s surface on August 23, around the same time as an Indian craft, which was launched on July 14.
Both countries’ modules are headed for the lunar south pole, an area where no spacecraft has landed smoothly. Only three governments have managed successful moon landings: the Soviet Union, the United States and China.
Roscosmos said the module would operate for one year and “take and analyse soil samples and conduct long-term scientific research” on lunar surface material and the atmosphere.
It said it wants to show Russia “is a state capable of delivering a payload to the moon”, and “ensure Russia’s guaranteed access to the moon’s surface”.
Sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine make it harder for it to access Western technology, impacting its space programme. The Luna-25 was initially meant to carry a small moon rover, but that idea was abandoned to reduce the weight of the craft for improved reliability, analysts said.
“Foreign electronics are lighter, domestic electronics are heavier,” Vitaliy Egorov, a popular Russian space analyst, said. “While scientists might have the task of studying lunar water, for Roscosmos, the main task is simply to land on the moon, to recover lost Soviet expertise and learn how to perform this task in a new era.”
Journalist Daniel Hawkins said that, for Russia, the mission was a “big comeback to major space missions after quite a long break”.
“Everyone is well aware of the tremendous Soviet legacy in terms of space launches,” Hawkins told Al Jazeera, speaking from Moscow.
“After the Soviet Union collapsed and sent the last probe to the moon back in 1976, the Russian space institute really went into a period of decline,” he said.
For Russia, a successful mission to the Moon would show that despite its turbulent past and the Western sanctions, which have “really impacted Russia’s space development”, the country is capable of conducting major space missions, Hawkins said.
It would show that it can do so with “equipment that is effectively made in Russia – Russia’s own brand – to compete at an international level”, he said.
Russia’s most recent space landing missions in 2016 and 2011 ended up failing.
“Study of the moon is not the goal,” Egorov said. “The goal is political competition between two superpowers – China and the USA – and a number of other countries which also want to claim the title of space superpower.”
The spaceport is a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin and is key to his efforts to make Russia a space superpower and move Russian launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Speaking at the Vostochny Cosmodrome last year, Putin said the Soviet Union had sent the first man to space in 1961 despite a “total” sanction regime.
He said Russia would develop its lunar programme despite Western economic penalties that reached unprecedented levels over the Ukraine war.
“We are guided by the ambition of our ancestors to move forward, despite any difficulties and despite external attempts to prevent us from moving,” Putin said.
A previous Indian attempt to land at the moon’s south pole in 2019 ended when the lander crashed into the moon’s surface.
The lunar south pole is of particular interest to scientists, who believe the permanently shadowed polar craters may contain water. The frozen water in the rocks could be transformed by future explorers into air and rocket fuel.
“The moon is largely untouched, and the whole history of the moon is written on its face,” said Ed Bloomer, an astronomer at the United Kingdom’s Royal Observatory, Greenwich. “It is pristine and like nothing you get on Earth. It is its own laboratory.”
The Luna-25 is to take samples of moon rock and dust. The samples are crucial to understanding the moon’s environment ahead of building any base there, “otherwise we could be building things and having to shut them down six months later because everything has effectively been sand-blasted”, Bloomer said.