The director general of the Russian Space Agency, General Yuri Borisov, breathed a sigh of relief as he saw with his own eyes how a powerful flare lifted the robotic Luna-25 mission and sent it on its way to the Earth's natural satellite.
General Borisov has already been congratulated by President Vladimir Putin after the state space corporation he heads, Roscosmos, successfully reactivated the first major milestone in Russia's lunar exploration programme just a few hours ago.
On Friday, 11 August at 01:11 am Spanish time (one hour more in Moscow), from the Siberian cosmodrome of Vostochny, some 5,500 kilometres east of the Russian capital, the Soyuz rocket roared off to launch Russia's first automatic lunar descent probe of the 21st century. The launch was broadcast live by Roscosmos until the complete separation of Luna-25 from the carrier rocket nine minutes after liftoff.
With Luna-25, the Kremlin is resuming its active presence on the Moon. At the same time, Moscow is ending a 47-year long hiatus in which it had put its interest in the moon, which was the subject of the space race between Washington and Moscow from the second half of the 1950s onwards, with the United States winning.
Luna-25 has been at the centre of the Kremlin's space expectations, although the mission has almost everything left to do. The future of Russian space science and technology depends largely on whether the spacecraft reaches lunar orbit on 16 August and lands gently on the surface of the South Pole five days later, whether its on-board instruments begin to function and whether the data it collects reaches Earth correctly.
In search of water
What is the significance of the Luna-25 mission? It is Vladimir Putin's first step towards officially giving the green light to Russia's manned lunar spaceflight programme. Roscosmos' plans to take cosmonauts to Earth's natural satellite "have no immediate prospect. It will be after 2030," confirmed Roscosmos' executive director for advanced scientific programmes, Professor Alexander Bloshenko.
Bloshenko, 39, is an eminent physicist and mathematician who enjoys the confidence of President Putin. He is aware that the high costs of the war in Ukraine are limiting state investment in the finalisation of the development of heavy carriers for the transport of cosmonauts and cargo, as well as the construction of the necessary manned lunar descent modules.
But he also knows that NASA's Artemis programme to return to the moon, China's slow-but-slow path to the moon and Russia's own public opinion are spurring Vladimir Putin and Roscosmos not to let the never-admitted race to the moon be won for a second time. Consequently, if Luna-25 sets a precedent of complete success, the Luna-26, 27 and 28 missions will be launched one after the other during the current decade and will be the prelude to sending the first Russian cosmonauts to Selene from 2030 onwards.
Roscosmos describes Luna-25 as Russia's first automatic lunar station. Its maximum take-off weight is 1,800 kilos, including 31 kilos of scientific equipment, for which the prestigious Space Research Institute (IKI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences is responsible. Under the direction of chief designer Pavel Kazmerchuk, it was built by NPO Lavochkin, a state-owned company specialising in the design and construction of scientific space probes.
The nine instruments on board are to study the composition of the soil and atmosphere in the vicinity of the South Pole. But most notably, the Russian probe is hunting for and capturing water. Its main objective is to "look for water", because "it is a key resource for future inhabited lunar bases", Alexander Bloshenko reiterates.
Destination: the lunar South Pole
Russian scientists are most interested in finding out the composition of lunar water, whether or not it is drinkable and whether it can be used as an energy source. That is why the probe incorporates an articulated manipulator arm equipped with a tiny high-resolution camera to collect soil samples down to a depth of 40 centimetres. A miniaturised spectrometer will analyse them immediately without the need to transport them to Earth.
A stereoscopic camera is also on board to allow ground control centre technicians to see the environment. Other instruments attached to it will study the thermal properties of the regolith - rock fragments and mineral grains that populate the lunar surface - the composition of lunar dust, the electric fields around the probe and the lunar exosphere. In addition, it will measure the neutron and gamma-ray background radiation on the surface and the components of the plasma.
Luna-25's large team of Russian engineers and scientists has already pre-selected a possible descent site. It will be at the South Pole, north of the Boguslavsky crater, but has also chosen two alternative sites nearby. The probe will orbit 18 kilometres above the surface, descend to 700 metres, where it will activate the retro rockets to break its fall. It will re-ignite the retro rockets at 20 metres altitude to land as gently as possible at less than 3 metres per second. And then it will get to work.
Luna-25 is the heir to numerous pioneering Soviet lunar missions, some of which have failed miserably, others with resounding successes. The last of these was Luna-24, launched on 9 August 1976 under Soviet leader Leonidas Brezhnev. A small module returned to Earth two weeks later with 170 grams of regolith.
The mission that is now heading towards Selene has already travelled part of the 357,000 kilometres that separate the Moon from the Earth this August, about 46 times the distance between Spain and Australia. Technicians at the Roscosmos Control Centre near Moscow are following its trajectory, correcting its flight and will monitor its activities after its descent on 21 August.
Luna-25 follows the Indian space agency's Chandrayaan-3 mission, which, although it launched on 14 July and is already circling Selene, is scheduled to land on the moon from 23 August. And it is ahead of Japan's SLIM, which is scheduled to launch on the 26th of this month from the Tanegashima base.