“Competing for the Moon’s South Pole: Russian and Indian Spacecraft Embark on Mini Space Race”


“In a Contemporary Space Race, Russian and Indian Spacecraft Compete for Moon’s Uncharted South Pole”

Presently, an intriguing mini space race is unfolding in the heavens. Two spacecraft, one originating from Russia and the other from India, are en route to an unexplored destination: the Moon’s South Pole. This uncharted territory has never witnessed the successful landing of a lander before. The Russian and Indian vehicles are on separate quests, each driven by the ambition to uncover water ice and potentially valuable minerals concealed within the lunar surface.

Interestingly, fate has aligned the timing of these crafts’ launches in such a manner that they are expected to reach their respective lunar destinations around the same time. This unforeseen convergence has turned into a captivating global spectacle, stirring speculation and prompting the question: Which of these spacecraft will triumph in this celestial contest?

For generations, our perspective on space events has been undeniably influenced by the original space race that transpired during the 1960s. During that era, the United States and the Soviet Union fiercely competed to achieve the remarkable feat of landing a human on the Moon. Despite the Soviet Union’s noteworthy accomplishments, such as launching the first satellite, sending a human into space, and successfully landing an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon, the ultimate triumph was claimed by the United States with the historic Apollo 11 mission, which saw astronauts stepping onto the lunar surface. The mesmerizing scenes of this adventure were broadcasted across television screens globally and were succeeded by additional Apollo missions with crewed astronauts, the last of which took place in 1972. Remarkably, even after more than five decades, the United States stands alone as the sole nation to have executed a successful crewed Moon landing.

On July 14, India’s Chandrayaan-3 embarked on its journey, carrying with it a payload of scientific instruments and a small, six-wheeled rover destined for lunar surface exploration. The spacecraft is projected to gently touch down on the Moon’s surface on August 23. In preparation for its landing, Chandrayaan-3 will first orbit Earth several times and then spend a number of weeks orbiting the Moon. On the other hand, Russia’s Luna-25, known as the “Luna-25,” recently initiated its departure from our planet, lifting off just after 2 a.m. Moscow time on August 11 (11 p.m. GMT on August 10). Luna-25 has opted for a faster, more direct trajectory to the Moon, potentially enabling it to arrive on the lunar surface as early as 10 days after launch, around August 21. Officials from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, have openly expressed their aspiration to be the first to achieve a soft landing at the Moon’s South Pole.

Despite Luna-25’s potentially expedited route, unforeseen variables may slightly extend its journey, potentially granting Chandrayaan-3 the chance to reach the Moon first. In this race, a steadier pace might hold the key to victory.

Both missions exemplify the resurgent interest in lunar exploration. Recent revelations regarding substantial deposits of water ice on the Moon have invigorated the scientific community. Hydrogen in water ice holds the potential to serve as a valuable resource for producing rocket fuel in potential future Moon bases, and the water could even be treated for human consumption.

The competition, albeit friendly in nature, between Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3 encapsulates a fresh era of lunar exploration. Multiple nations, including the United States, China, Israel, and private enterprises, are intently focusing on the Moon, launching spacecraft and planning crewed missions. This endeavor is not merely about competition; it marks the inception of a new phase in human exploration. The incremental steps taken by individual spacecraft and subsequent crewed missions could pave the way for significant strides in mastering the challenges of the Solar System in the forthcoming decades and centuries. The question of which mission reaches its destination first could indeed carry profound implications.

Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor of strategy and security studies at the U.S. Air and Space Force’s Air University, remarked, “It’s turned out to be more of a coincidence than anything,” alluding to the synchronicity of the Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3 missions. While India possesses an advantageous position due to its spacecraft’s pre-existing lunar orbit, Russia is likely motivated by a sense of urgency to be at the forefront given its shorter route to the Moon. Chandrayaan-3 outweighs Luna-25 in terms of mass and was launched using a less powerful rocket, necessitating elliptical orbits around Earth to build velocity before its trajectory towards the Moon. The operators of both crafts must ensure their vehicles’ performance prior to initiating the touchdown sequence, as unexpected malfunctions could potentially delay or derail their plans. The outcome will only be clear upon reaching the lunar destination.

National pride could serve as a driving force in propelling these missions forward. Russia might be seeking to reaffirm its prowess in space, particularly in light of challenges posed by sanctions following its actions in Ukraine. Conversely, Stefania Paladini, a space industry researcher at Queen Margaret University in the UK, noted that the Russian space program’s historical accomplishments place it in a distinct position. The Soviet Union not only achieved multiple lunar landings but also positioned rovers on the Moon half a century ago. The very name “Luna-25” harks back to the last Russian lunar mission, Luna 24, in 1976. The Soviet Luna 1 space probe holds the distinction of being the first spacecraft to approach the Moon in 1959, passing at a distance of 3,725 miles (5,995 km) above its surface.

In contrast, Chandrayaan-3’s successful landing would represent India’s maiden achievement in executing a “soft landing” on the Moon. The nation’s previous attempt with the Chandrayaan-2 lander ended in disappointment when the vehicle crashed upon the lunar surface in September 2019. (Although India previously sent a spacecraft to the Moon’s South Pole with the Moon Impact Probe in 2008, it wasn’t a soft landing, and the probe’s survival was not expected.)

However, the notable distinction in these missions lies in their targeted landing sites at the Moon’s South Pole. To date, no spacecraft has managed to land successfully in this region. The Apollo missions all touched down further north, closer to the Moon’s equator, benefiting from smoother terrain and ample sunlight. In contrast, the South Pole presents a rugged landscape marked by craters, and sunlight arrives at a sharper angle.

Jack Burns, an astrophysics and planetary science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, explained that the lower positioning of the Sun in the sky generates long shadows, complicating the identification of features such as craters and boulders on the lunar surface. Burns highlighted that the conditions at the lunar South Pole pose unique challenges, and this knowledge could be valuable for planned crewed missions like Artemis III, which aims to reach the lunar South Pole as early as 2025.

Despite this, Wendy Whitman Cobb noted that crewed missions will always entail greater complexities compared to uncrewed ones. The difficulties inherent to crewed spaceflight place it in a distinct category altogether.

Looking ahead, what holds real significance is the establishment of a sustainable and meaningful lunar presence. Vishnu Reddy, a planetary sciences professor at the University of Arizona, criticized the notion of competition between nations and private companies. He views such competition as a distraction and emphasizes that enduring lunar presence cannot be built on

political rivalries or national triumphs.

The scientific payloads aboard both landers bear similarities, with the instruments aiming to enhance our understanding of lunar water ice, minerals, the Moon’s limited atmosphere, and more. Gaining a clearer comprehension of the lunar South Pole and demonstrating the capability to land safely in this challenging location are vital milestones.

Another perspective comes from Anu Ojha, director of engagement, international and inspiration at the UK Space Agency. Ojha likens the situation to international “architectures” vying against each other. Countries like the US, UK, and India are participants in the Artemis Accords, while Russia and China collaborate on the International Lunar Research Station project. These collaborative efforts represent early ventures from these international conglomerates.

Amidst these pursuits, a looming question emerges: What lies ahead? What if we do establish lunar bases and commence resource extraction for future space endeavors? The Outer Space Treaty from 1967 states that no nation can claim ownership of the Moon. However, the Moon Agreement, a subsequent treaty that delineates the non-ownership of lunar resources, has not been signed by key players like the US, China, and Russia.

This raises the issue of ownership and utilization of lunar resources, and whether every nation will have an equal stake in the outcomes. This potential challenge carries echoes of terrestrial geopolitical disputes, emphasizing the need for thoughtful resolution.

As of now, Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3 traverse the void of space, embodying just a fraction of humanity’s quest to explore the Moon and extend our species’ reach into the expansive Solar System. These two landers are akin to mere chess pieces on a colossal board, yet they demonstrate that each move holds significance in the intricate game of space exploration.

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