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Origin of the Luna-Glob project

Although the USSR virtually abandoned lunar exploration with the end of the Moon race in mid-1970s, Russian scientists still saw the Moon as an interesting target for exploration. During the 1980s, a lunar polar orbiter, LSN (1L), was one of several space missions proposed for a new spacecraft platform developed at NPO Lavochkin. However, at the time, lunar missions lost in priority to Mars-bound projects. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union and the following a decade of economic turmoil, did another lunar exploration project -- Luna-Glob -- make it into the Russian space program at the beginning of the 21st century.


A scenario of the Luna-Glob mission circa 1998. "PL" stands for "Penetrator Lander", "PS" means for "Polar Station" and "HSP" is "High-Speed Penetrator."



At the end of 1992, just a year after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Erik Galimov became the head of Moscow's Vernadsky Geochemistry Institute - the organization which was once responsible for studies of lunar soil delivered by three Soviet landers, Luna-16, Luna-20 and Luna-24. In his new position, Galimov became a strong lobbyist for a return to the Moon.

On September 20, 1996, on the eve of the ill-fated Mars-96 mission, Galimov delivered a report on lunar exploration to the Space Council of the Academy of Sciences, RAN, tasked with determining the nation's scientific priorities in space. The council then recommended "to review the possibility of including the lunar mission in the plan of preliminary research projects, known in Russian as NIRs, which would be funded by the Russian government during the upcoming 1997." Within a month, based on that recommendation, Galimov, sent a letter to the Director of the Russian space agency, Yuri Koptev, urging him to institute a long-term program of lunar exploration, starting with the immediate inclusion into the nearest Russian space plans (Space Program until 2005), of an unmanned orbiter with a launch date no later than the end of 1998.

The main goal of the mission would be to release so-called high-velocity surface penetrators - a kind of spear-shaped projectiles designed to pierce the lunar surface and embed sensitive instruments below the Moon's surface.

These devices were first developed for the Mars-96 mission and were considered to be a relatively low-tech way of obtaining scientific data from the planetary interior. However, to prevent their destruction on impact, the Martian variant of the projectile relied on parachutes which were obviously useless in the airless lunar environment. Therefore, rocket-propulsion would have to be used to control the impact velocity.

Galimov's rational for implementing the mission was that lunar exploration promised a breakthrough in Earth sciences; that the lunar surface provided an ideal location for astrophysics research and that the future energy crisis on Earth predicted around the middle of the 21st century could be resolved with the help of mining for thermonuclear fuel on the Moon and by placing solar power stations on the lunar surface. Galimov also argued that with the unique experience in the development of lunar probes at NPO Lavochkin, the next lunar mission could be implemented in parallel and at the fraction of the cost of the Spektr space telescopes that were consuming much of the Russian space science budget at the time.

Galimov planned to keep costs down by shifting lunar missions from reliance on the expensive heavy Proton rockets, favored in the late Soviet period, to the medium-lift Molniya vehicles. (Molniya could deliver seven tons to low Earth orbit, including its fourth stage.) Koptev, a veteran of NPO Lavochkin himself, took Galimov's proposals seriously and commissioned the TsNIIMash research institute, the agency's main strategy planning center, to prepare an expert review of the subject. The organization fully supported Galimov's position. TsNIIMash especially strongly endorsed ideas about industrial exploration of lunar minerals.

The institute predicted that in the first quarter or in the first half of the 21st century, the Moon was bound to be included in the Earth’s industrial infrastructure. According to TsNIIMash, mining for Helium-3 on the Moon could give humanity around 5,000-years worth of power supply. The institute recommended to include a penetrator-carrying orbiter and a lander with a rover into the Russian space program.

On December 18, 1996, right after the disastrous launch of the Mars-96 mission, Galimov wrote an official letter to the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, RAN, Yuri Osipov, urging him to focus the future Russian planetary program on the Moon and on the return of soil from small bodies in the Solar System, such as asteroids. The latter goal could be conveniently combined with the exploration of Mars by sending a spacecraft to Phobos. Galimov argued that any further missions focusing exclusively on Mars would not be justified, given the extensive Mars exploration program implemented by NASA. He proposed to launch the lunar orbiter at the end of 1998 - beginning of 1999, which could serve as a precursor for a mission to Phobos then targeted for launch in 2001. In parallel, another lunar mission would be launched in 2001. Around 100 billion rubles annually would be required for all three missions. By January 1997, these ideas were formalized in the Concept for the Russian program of the Exploration of the Solar System. A number of Russian science institutions involved in planetary research and the industry agreed with that plan and submitted it for approval to the Russian space agency.

However, the Moscow-based Space Research Institute, IKI, the key Russian organization providing scientific experiments for planetary missions, objected to the strategy, because its management still held some hope to re-fly the ill-fated Mars-96 mission as soon as the next window to Mars in 1998. After these hopes were dashed, IKI issued a slightly revised version of the plan worked out during 1997.

By that time, the Russian space budget for the period from 1996 to 2000 had already been approved and not counting some money for the failed Mars-96 allocated no funding for planetary exploration.

After consideration of all proposals made under a most difficult financial situation in Russia, the Planetary Section within the Academy of Sciences' Space Council approved three deep-space missions:

  • In 1999 - Luna-27, carrying an orbiter, lander and surface penetrators;
  • In 2001 - Mars Together, a joint Russian-American mission to Mars carrying a rover and penetrators;
  • In 2003 - Phobos-Grunt.

In the 1997 space budget, some seed money was provided for these projects. During 1997 and 1998, the price tag of the Luna-27 project was estimated at 250-280 billion rubles (or $50 million). Initially identified as Luna-27 and Luna-Geokhimik, the project was officially named Luna-Glob, based on the idea from Yu. A. Surkov, a chief developer at Vernadsky GEOKhI, who also gave the Phobos-Grunt project its name.

During 1997, NPO Lavochkin worked on the preliminary design of the Luna-Glob spacecraft compatible with the Molniya rocket and based on the technical assignment from the Vernadsky GEOKhI institute. Also, mockups of scientific instruments were developed and manufactured. In parallel, GEOKhI issued and documented technical proposals for both Luna-Glob and the Mars-Aster project aimed at exploring the Red Planet and an asteroid.

On October 27, 1997, the Planetary Section of the Space Council within the Academy of Sciences requested a full-scale development, (known in Russia as OKR), for the Luna-Glob and Phobos-Grunt projects with projected launches in 1999 and 2003, respectively. At the time, the section's wish list also included the Luna-Geolog (Luna-Geologist) sample return mission to be launched in 2004 and the Luna-Geolog rover mission in 2006. (402)

Death of the original project

In 1998, as the Russian economy went into a tailspin, the Kremlin had to make many very hard choices. In the space science program, the Russian government was tied by international agreements to the Spektr project, a trio of sophisticated orbital observatories, with a partially completed Spektr-RG telescope being first in line. Since Russia and its international partners had already invested millions of dollars in the program, all other space science projects had to be axed in an ultimately fruitless attempt to at least save Spektr-RG.

In May 1998, the Planetary Section was told to leave either one lunar mission or the Phobos mission in the Russian space program for the next seven years. The goal was to preserve at least one planetary exploration project with a chance to fly before 2005, money provided. With their backs against the wall, planetary scientists chose Phobos-Grunt as the most unique mission, thus sacrificing Luna-Glob. The scientists could only hope that an eventual economic recovery in Russia would lead to a renewed interest in lunar exploration.

On June 2, 1998, the Planetary Section of the Russian Academy of Sciences made the official decision to develop the Phobos-Grunt project, with an expected launch date five years later -- in 2003. The lunar exploration was deferred to a better days but not officially abandoned.


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The article and illustration by Anatoly Zak; Last update: January 17, 2021

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: January 16, 2021

All rights reserved


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Original configuration of the Luna-Glob spacecraft in launch configuration with Block L upper stage under a payload fairing of the Molniya rocket. Credit: NPO Lavochkin