According to experts, Russia’s plans for moon exploration are serious and represent part of the country’s renewed concentration on overcoming its various space setbacks in recent years. (Photo : Reuters)
Almost 40 years after abandoning its lunar exploration program, Russia is once again planning a trip to the moon, the country announced Wednesday. Russia will launch a series of unmanned robot probe missions to the moon in 2015, Russian space agency Roskosmos announced this week. A manned mission will follow the unmanned probe missions no later than 2030.
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The first spacecraft, called the Luna-Glob, or Moon-Globe, is a 1.2 ton lunar lander, consisting of a orbital module and a probe, that will be deposited on the moon's surface to search for water, take soil samples, and beam back its findings to Earth.
"We will begin our exploration of the moon from there," Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told Russian journalists Tuesday, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
The Luna-Glob will hitch a ride on the first rocket to blast off from a new $1 billion space center, Vostochny Kosmodrome, that Russia is currently building in its far eastern Amur region, according to the Daily Mail.
According to experts, Russia's plans for moon exploration are serious and represent part of the country's renewed concentration on overcoming its various space setbacks in recent years, which happened so consistently at one point that Russian space officials blamed the mishaps on foreign sabotage, the Monitor noted. The missteps include a string of crashes involving Russia's Proton rocket booster. Russia's attempt to construct a satellite-based global positioning system to match the American GPS network also repeatedly experienced problems, even losing several critical satellite payloads.
The worst failure of all though, was the Russian space program's ambitious Mars probe, the Phobos-Grunt. Designed to pick up and bring back rock and soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos, the probe's engines stalled while still in Earth's orbit. Despite weeks of stymied efforts by ground controllers the craft crashed into the Pacific Ocean one year ago.
"We were so depressed after what happened to Phobos-Grunt, that the decision was made to turn to more simple and readily accessible projects. The moon is a step to all the rest," said Igor Lisov, columnist with the Russian space journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki. "The timing is reasonable, the plan is logical, and there's clear understanding about what to do and when to do it," he said. "It's a matter of state interest."
The other planned unmanned missions include three satellite observatories and two lunar landers, which will target the moon's north and south poles, sites where signs of water have been recorded. The ultimate goal of the moon missions is to establish a fully robotic Russian lunar base, Popovkin said.
Roskosmos is offering $300,000 to anyone who can develop a design for a heavy rocket able to power a manned mission to the moon by 2030. The winning design will be selected in a few months, said Popovkin. The new rocket system capable of supporting manned spacecraft should be ready by 2020, he added.
Not everyone in Russia is so optimistic about the country's renewed enthusiasm for lunar exploration. Some experts argue that the nation's new plans are just symptomatic of the "organizational disarray and technical ineptness that has overtaken the once mighty Soviet space program," the Monitor noted.
"I don't think these declarations of our officials should be taken too seriously. They seem to change regularly, and with no good reason," says Andrei Ionin, an expert with the government-linked Tsiolkovsky Space Academy in Moscow.
"There is no serious strategy of development. Instead we see space officials rushing about over the past couple of years without any positive results ... State financing is growing, so officials want to demonstrate that the money is not being allocated in vain. But this has all the earmarks of a pure PR campaign," he added.