Destination Moon: Russia to Launch New Wave of Lunar Robots

[dropcap]Russia[/dropcap] is developing a renewed robotic moon exploration program, building upon the history-making legacy of orbiters, landers, rovers and sample-return missions the country launched decades ago.

Russia‘s rekindling of an aggressive moon exploration plan was unveiled by Igor Mitrofanov of the Institute for Space Research (IKI) in Moscow during Microsymposium 54 on “Lunar Farside and Poles — New Destinations for Exploration,” held in The Woodlands, Texas, on March 16 and 17.

The microsymposium was co-sponsored by Brown University, Russia‘s Vernadsky Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

 Notable lunar firsts

Russia launched its last moon mission in August 1976, when it was still the Soviet Union. That mission, called Luna 24, was the last in the Luna series and featured a spacecraft that landed on the moon and returned samples of the Mare Crisium (Sea of Crisis) region.

The former Soviet Union‘s robotic lunar program achieved a number of notable  “firsts” on Earth’s satellite, including the first spacecraft to impact the moon; first flyby and photograph of the lunar farside; first soft landing on the lunar surface; first lunar orbiter; first circumlunar probe to return to Earth; first automatic return of lunar samples; and, of course, the first moon rover Lunokhod.

Today, Russian space scientists are scripting a new plan to reconnect with the moon.

“Exploration of the moon is an important part of the program,” Mitrofanov said. ‘I just want to emphasize that Russia is a spacefaring country not only with the robotic but also manned flight.”

Mitrofanov said that the lunar pole is a most favorable place for future outposts for humans in deep space and emphasized that moon exploration was a step toward future Mars journeys.

Moon timetable

At the microsymposium, Mitrofanov discussed Russia‘s moon mission schedule over the next several years. “Depending on the success of these [first] three missions, another two will be implemented,” he said.

Those five potential moon missions would launch in the following order:

2015 — Luna 25 (Luna Glob Lander):A small lander on the moon’s South Pole that would analyze lunar regolith and local exosphere and test volatiles from less than 2 feet (50 centimeters) subsurface. This spacecraft would showcase lunar landing system technology, communication systems and longtime operations.

2016 — Luna 26 (Luna Glob Orbiter): An orbiter for the moon in a 60-mile-high (100 kilometers) polar circular orbit. It would globally map the lunar surface, measure the exosphere and plasma around the moon and carry out reconnaissance of landing sites for lunar exploration, exhibiting longtime orbital operations and global mapping.

2017 — Luna 27 (Luna Resource-1): A large lander sent to the moon’s South Pole to study lunar regolith and local exosphere; it would also test for volatiles in the lunar subsurface. This lander would also test a drilling system for cryogenic sampling of the moon.

2019 — Luna 28 (Luna-Resource-2):  A “to be determined (TBD)” mission f that is a polar moon sample return involving cryogenic delivery of lunar samples back to Earth. This mission would help develop return flight system technology for transiting between the moon and Earth.

Leonard David, SPACE.com’s Space Insider Columnist

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