Luna 25’s Demise: Raising Fundamental Questions About Russia’s Space Program

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket booster with a Fregat upper stage and the Luna 25 lunar lander blasts off from a launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast, Russia.

The recent news that Russia’s Luna 25 Moon lander had made an unexpected lithobraking detour into the Moon’s surface, rather than the expected soft touchdown was met by a variety of responses, ranging from dismay to outright glee, much of it on account of current geopolitical considerations. Yet politics aside, the failure of this mission casts another shadow on the prospects of Russia’s attempts to revive the Soviet space program after a string of failures, including its ill-fated Mars 96 and Fobos-Grunt Mars missions, the latter of which also destroyed China’s first Mars orbiter (Yinghuo-1) and ignited China’s independent Mars program.

To this day, only three nations have managed to land on the Moon in a controlled fashion: the US, China, and the Soviet Union. India may soon join this illustrious list if its Chandrayaan-3 mission’s Vikram lander dodges the many pitfalls of soft touchdowns on the Moon’s surface. While Roscosmos has already started internal investigation, it does cast significant doubt on the viability of the Russian Luna-Glob (‘Lunar Sphere’) lunar exploration program.

Will Russia manage to pick up where the Soviet Union left off in 1976 with the Luna 24 lunar sample return mission?

Post-Space Race

The period of the 1950s leading into the 1970s was one of breakneck innovations and experimentation as one first after the other got achieved. Here the USSR outperformed the US on many accounts, achieving the first artificial satellite, first lunar spacecraft and orbiter, first human spaceflight and first spacewalk. As the USSR suffered setbacks with its N1 heavy rocket, however, it had to relent the first manned flights to the Moon, instead shifting its attention to more robotic flights to Mars (first soft touchdown on Mars with Mars 3), the Moon (Luna 16’s first robotic sample return mission) and the highly notable soft touchdowns on Venus with the Venera landers.

During the 1970s, the USSR developed a range of highly successful space stations with the Salyut program that led to the modular space station Mir and the successor Mir 2, the latter of which became known as the International Space Station (ISS). The irony of this is perhaps that although we refer to the ‘Russian section’ of the ISS, it’s effectively a Soviet-built core (the Zvezda module being the Soviet-era Mir 2 core module), with the additional modules following Soviet designs including the Soviet-designed auto-docking system.

So if the ‘Russian space station’ is really just a Soviet space station with a different flag glued on top of the old Soviet one, what does this tell us about Russia’s Martian and Lunar programs? In how far are they different from their Soviet predecessors, when Roscosmos has insisted on following the same internal designations for the Luna 25 and future planned missions?

The Luna 25 Lander

Model of the Luna 24 Moon lander.
Model of the Luna 24 Moon lander.

The last Luna program mission happened in 1976, with not only the fall of the Soviet Union throwing a spanner in the works since then, but also a few generations of new engineers earning their degree and retiring since then, not to mention the many who found employment outside of Russia. For the Luna-Glob program this essentially meant having to start from scratch, using old paper drawings and possibly fuzzy recollections from whoever once worked at the same NPO Lavochkin aerospace company that manufactured Luna 9 through 24, as well as the ill-fated Luna 25.

If we compare Luna 24 with Luna 25, we can get some idea of in how far it is a continuation rather than a pale imitation. The former had a launch mass of 5,800 kg compared to the latter’s 1,750 kg, with Luna 24 featuring the sample return stage (weighing 520 kg), sample collection system and some basic scientific instruments plus a video camera.

Schematic view of the Lunar 25 and its components (Credit: Roscosmos)
Schematic view of the Lunar 25 and its components (Credit: Roscosmos)

Meanwhile the Luna 25 probe had a 30 kg payload of various scientific instruments that can analyze scooped up lunar regolith, as well as a range of other aspects of the lunar surface. These include a laser mass analyzer assisted by an infrared spectrometer to determine the components in the lunar regolith, a neutron-based scanning tool to analyze the regolith in-situ, plus multiple instruments to study the lunar exosphere (very thin atmosphere), all packed together as a miracle of modern miniaturization compared to the state of the art back in the 1970s, when unreliable singular transistors led to the loss of many Soviet spacecraft.

The Luna 25 spacecraft also would seem to share many characteristics with its Soviet-era predecessor, which would seem to include the propulsion system that’s supposed to guide the craft into a suitable landing orbit. Unfortunately, based on the comments made by Roscosmos it would seem that either a string of incorrect trajectory adjustment commands were sent to the spacecraft, or some kind of malfunction occurred which led to its unfortunate lithobraking course. Clearly, even if it’s proven Soviet technology with a modern payload strapped to it, it is not immune to what at this point in time could be a simple human error or conceivably an assembly error, not unlike what happened to the manned Soyuz MS-10 launch to the ISS in 2018 that nearly killed both crew members due to an apparent assembly error.

Too Little Too Late?

Perhaps the optimistic take on this failure is that by avoiding sending wrong commands to the lander it could just work next time. The problem is that Luna 25 already took many years longer than originally scheduled, to the point where ESA dropped cooperation with Roscosmos and pulled an instrument off the lander. Meanwhile the Luna 26 orbiter (tentatively 2027) and Luna 27 lander (tentatively 2028) are likely to be pushed back while Roscosmos considers a possible replacement for Luna 25. Yet the major question is whether it matters at all, considering that China has seemingly leap-frogged Russia.

China’s Lunar Exploration Program began in 2007 with the Chang’e 1 orbiter, followed by the Chang’e 2 orbiter in 2010. Since then the Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu 1 rover touched down softly on the lunar surface in 2013. Subsequently Chang’e 4 landed in 2018 on the far side of the Moon as a world’s first, along with its Yutu 2 rover, both of which are still active today. The Chang’e 5 sample return mission was a complete success in 2020, which will be followed up by the Chang’e 6 sample return mission in 2024 and the 2026 Chang’e 7 mission featuring an orbiter, lander, rover and a hopping probe, all focused on the Moon’s south pole, which is the target of many current and upcoming Moon missions.

All of these are in preparation for the Chang’e 8 mission that is intended to launch in 2028 and which should feature a robotic laboratory to attempt in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and other experiments prior to a manned Moon mission and attempts to establish a Moon base. Also of note is that while Russia’s Moon program has been largely cut off from the international scientific community, China’s program features international payloads, such as the German Lunar Lander Neutron and Dosimetry experiment on Chang’e 4. The fruits of this cooperation can be found in publications such as Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, with this 2022 paper by Zigong Xu and colleagues providing insights on primary and albedo protons on the far side of the Moon.

Similarly, the Swedish LINA-XSAN payload was also pulled from Luna 25 and flew on Chang’e 4 instead.

Eyes On India

Although it’s never wise to count one’s chickens before all fragile eggs have landed safely on lunar regolith, there’s a good chance that India’s Moon program will bear fruit starting with Chandrayaan-3 this month, paving the road for a new era of Moon exploration in which China, India and private companies will be most firmly represented. It is highly likely that ESA and NASA will cooperate with these programs, providing scientific instruments that can thus make their way to the lunar surface in absence of a relevant European or North-American Moon program.

In this regard Luna 25 could be seen as the last bitter-sweet hurrah to the once proud Soviet engineering prowess that formed such a fundamental foundation for space today, including the seeds that would go on to form the Chinese and Indian space programs. If it are those respective Moon programs that can thus be considered the true spiritual successors of the Soviet space program, then Luna 25 was the definite sign that the last embers of the Soviet space program within the borders of the Russian Federation have now turned cold.

Heading image: A Soyuz-2.1b rocket booster with a Fregat upper stage and the Luna 25 lunar lander blasts off from a launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast, Russia.

79 thoughts on “Luna 25’s Demise: Raising Fundamental Questions About Russia’s Space Program

  1. Luna 25, what a pile of space junk, it looks like Roscosmos raided an abandoned trailer park for parts.

    The Lunar authorities should impose a stiff fine on Russia for littering.

  2. “in absence of a relevant [..] North-American Moon program.”

    Is this some weird universe I’ve been teleported into where the US hasn’t spent like, ~$50B with another ~$50B on the way on a lunar program?

    I don’t understand what that comment was supposed to mean?

      1. I wish the pork were being handed out in barrels. There’d be at least some motivation to keep it manageable. As it is, we are probably talking about pork that requires Post-panamax sized vessels.

    1. Just Russophobia.

      The same people will stamp their heels if NASA budget.

      We should foster a global attitude to try for absolutely any country.

      I couldn’t care less if North Korea manages to land on the Moon, at least someone has done it.

    2. It refers to the US pursuing a manned Moon program (‘getting people back to the Moon’) while not pursuing a multitude of robotic missions you could conceivably put those sensors on. This is why Western researchers are working together with their Chinese counterparts, as only the Chinese lunar exploration program offers them this ability.

      1. “while not pursuing a multitude of robotic missions you could conceivably put those sensors on”

        That’d be a surprise to all of the researchers that are furiously writing grants for all of the piggyback missions that are planned for Artemis.

  3. If only Dmitrii Rogozin were still head of Roskosmos, he would have explained to us how the Luna 25 impactor (that’s what it was planned to be from the beginning!!) just started excavation at the site of the future Russian Moon base.

  4. I liked the title of this post because it reminded me there are ALSO fundamental questions about the entrenched Clown World at NASA, ULA, etc. and how/why these upstarts at SpaceX are not just eating their lunches but also kicking their dogs in the yard at home? If I were a firmware engineer at ULA I’d be skulking around, just hoping for a job if the next round of grift comes through while looking on Indeed through my Starlink.

    Worrying about the homefront before berating the Russians is likely a solid approach; none of your tax money to go poof with whatever Baikonur launches.


    1. NASA is literally SpaceX’s biggest customer.

      They’ve been trying to get out of the rocket business for decades. They’re not having their “lunch eaten.” They flat out kick-started the commercial launch industry and are currently kick-starting the heavy launch and lunar industry.

    2. NASA’s problem is that they’re limited to what Congress tells them. Artemis could be a lot better if they weren’t forced to reuse SST parts to keep/reopen manufacturing plants. SpaceX has no such limitations.

      1. “Artemis could be a lot better if they weren’t forced to reuse SST parts to keep/reopen manufacturing plants. SpaceX has no such limitations.”

        Starship is literally funded primarily by Artemis. SpaceX is NASA’s biggest contractor (ignoring Cal Tech’s JPL money).

        And if you take even a glance at the longer-term plans with Gateway, the NRHO orbit makes it very likely that they’ll deprecate SLS at some point in favor of a combination of commercial launches. Let me put it this way: bring up the slides for the Gateway program, and count the number of commercial launches vs SLS launches. Artemis is *flat-out* bootstrapping deep-space commercial launches.

        I have no idea why there’s this weird “SPACEX VS NASA” thing going on. SLS was foisted on NASA by Congress, but NASA specifically chose lunar plans which directly fund more commercial rocket launches than SLS launches. Did you never stop to think about why they did that?

      2. There is another reason legacy hardware was used on Artemis. That hardware has a proven track record during the Space Shuttle Program (SSP); you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. For instance, the main engine used on the Artemis I European Service Module was originally an SSP Orbital Maneuvering System Engine (OMS-E) delta-qualified to the Orion standards including vibration and thermal. In fact, some of the vibration and thermal qualification testing happened at the Johnson Space Center. There were people involved that earned the Space Flight Awareness Team Award for their efforts.

    1. Do you mean defending against an invasion by someone? Like the invasion of South Vietnam by the forces of North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union? Also, why do you think taking sides in a conflict far away is worse than a colonial landgrab against a neighbor, behaving like it is still the 18th century?

  5. You morons realize the USSR was the first country to land a probe on the moon, yes? I don’t know how you can be so microcontroller smart and so internationally/culturally retarded.

      1. They have more genetic lineage than anyone else in history, meanwhile we are busy with the work of piling up our own funeral pyre and our technology is burning down the world. So biologically I’d say they’re not too bad

    1. If you have to insult someone in a poor attempt to convince them you are right … were you really right to begin with? Seriously need to look inward into why you are so angry that you need to spew low hanging derogatives.

  6. So many funny comments here, but the main problem is overlooked.
    Both countries were running out of German scientists. That’s why the 20th century space race came to an halt, a few less important factors aside. ;)

    1. German scientist remain available to hire, today.
      Have never been unavailable.

      Getting them to work for Russia? Not so easy.
      But the USA? They vote with their feet.

      Ask me how I know this, I am literally a son of the Apollo program.

          1. It was meant as a reference to that old joke about which nation had the better German scientists. After WK2 (WW2), the remaings of the German rocket program (V2 mainly) were being carried to both USSR and USA (-btw, both US-something nations, funny-). To my understanding, that included the scientists, too, which were being caught. Their life was better in the US, understandably. The USSR regime wasn’t exactly known for being soft or providing a comfy living. Let’s just look what they did to East Germany, how they supported that country in its re-building process. It ended up being a third-world country, essentially.

          2. That joke doesn’t exclude scientists from well after the war. The actual question isn’t even close. The USA had/has better German scientists.

            Egypt also tried to build missiles with German scientists. Mossad tightened those guys right up.

      1. This reminds me that I heard that after the soviet period ended the US bought lots of soviet rocket engines, and based some of their designs on them if I recall correctly, look at the episode of Scott Manley to know.
        So you could say the US had a ‘reignition’ as it were on imported rocket technology after the original German one.

  7. Let’s not talk about Russia “picking up where the Soviet Union left off” nor compare Russia with their “Soviet predecessors”.

    The current Russian Federation is a different country separate from the fallen Soviet Union. And Russia needs to learn this lesson, that they are not the Soviet Union. Every time they are treated as being in any way a continuation or extension of the old Soviet Union it encourages that harmful mindset that it is their right to “re”-conquor those other nations that also split from the old Soviet bloc. Every such mention is a tiny fuel dropped in the fire that leads them to murder their neighbors.

    The USSR is dead.
    Leave it in it’s grave.

      1. What the USSR did was import a bunch of non-Russians from their satellites and export Ruskys. In an effort to turn the whole place into greater Russia.

        They expected the non-Russians deep in Siberia to assimilate. Russians to dominate their new homes.

        The downside is they have Ukrainians/Georgians/Estonians/Latvians/Finns etc etc all through Russia. Who mostly don’t like Russians and do remember.

        Plus minority enclaves of Rusky’s who mostly don’t want to be directly ruled by Russians either. They also remember. Russian leaders killed more Russians than Nazis or Vodka.

      2. What? Are you saying that because the USSR Russianized it’s republics and satellite states the Russian Federation has a valid claim on them today?

        Even if all ethnic Ukrainians and every bit of Ukranian culture was gone by the time the Soviet Union broke up and every person in Ukraine was a direct descendant of Cathrine II it wouldn’t give the Russian Federation a valid claim. They still declared and obtained independence as the USSR broke up and have been their own nation with their own sovereignty since.

        Having people with a common background does not give them ownership any more than England, Spain and France own the United States today. Besides… remember when Putin was babbling on about having a claim to Kiev because Slavic culture started there? If it DID work that way (it doesn’t) that would give Kiev a claim on Moscow, not Moscow a claim on Kiev! I’d say they should go get it except that I’m sure keeping it would be far more trouble than it’s worth. It’s better everyone just keep to their own lands and go vacationing on their neighbor’s soil, not conquering.

        1. “remember when Putin was babbling on about having a claim to Kiev because Slavic culture started there?”

          Excellent point and well-stated. By that logic, Kiev should own Russia. Kievan Rus, a kingdom that was a progenitor to Russia (until the Mongols sacked it) literally had Kiev as its capital. Hell, it’s in the name. Food for thought.

      3. By that logic, it’s also a generation thing, though.
        The people who lived there in the 1960s are not the same who live now.

        Even if we talk about one and same person and not generations. People change. Neither of us is exactly same person as he/she used to be, either.
        Every ~7-10 years, our body is being remade, essentially. But it’s not only about genetics, but also society.

        And that’s were Twisty Plastic hit a nail, I think. USSR and Ru. Federation are completely different societies. They’re not the same, they don’t even share the same principles/paradigms.

        The USSR had its problem, but it also had people who tried their best to live by the principles of socialism. They were comparably humble, kind and believed in a greater whole (not that they didn’t care about money whatsoever, but good social contacts were higher being valued; people needed good connections to get hold of certain items/things).

        Now look at this dystopian Russia, in which kids and teenagers see no future. Where education no longer is free in the way it used to be, were homeless people lay on street. It’s capitalism at its finest, the total reverse. All innall, it’s more like the US than USSR, I think.

        In a similar, but positive way, modern Germany is different to WK2 Germany. We’re different generations for one, but also a different society. Still, we occupy the same ground (roughly) and feel responsible for what our predecessors did and there are certain positive things of the past days that we did take carry over.

  8. If this space probe wasn’t sabotaged, we must remember that to land a probe on the moon is now “off the shelf” technology that was developed over 50 years ago. All Russian scientists need to do is dust off old text books and see how they did it then. What was cutting edge calculations done then on slide rules, is now child’s play with computers. India was successful with implementing this “off the shelf” technology because they aren’t at a

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