Russian lunar missions face new delays
The failure of the Luna-25 lander in August 2023 triggered a major re-evaluation of the lunar exploration strategy at Roskosmos, backdropped by the uncertain space budget, a massive brain drain and the complete breakdown of cooperation with the West as a result of the war against Ukraine.
On the heels of the successful but short-lived trip of the Luna-Glob (Luna-25) spacecraft to the lunar orbit in August 2023, Head of Roskosmos Yuri Borisov said that the launch of the Luna-26 (Luna-Resurs Orbiter) spacecraft was planned for 2027, followed by Luna-27 (Luna-Resurs Lander) in 2028 and by Luna-28 (Luna-Grunt) in 2030 or later. Despite being pushed back relative to previous schedules, these dates had to be considered very optimistic given the need for a complete overhaul of these projects in order to replace imported components and instruments, not to mention funding levels in the program.
Soon after the loss of the Luna-25 (Luna-Glob) spacecraft, Borisov expressed hope for repeating the mission, while there were also calls for building two flight-worthy Luna-27 landers to increase chances for success of the Luna-Resurs project.
According to reports from the International Astronautics Congress, IAC-2023, in October 2023, Russian officials still presented the existing decade-old strategy for lunar exploration, including Luna-26, -27, and -28, but without definitive launch dates for any of these missions pending the review of the Luna-25 failure. At the same time, Borisov was quoted as saying that Roskosmos had been considering moving launch dates for Luna-26 and Luna-27 missions forward in order to accelerate the overall program.
In October 2023, NPO Lavochkin, the prime contractor in the Russian robotic exploration program, and the Space Research Institute, IKI, a key developer of scientific experiments in space, released the latest revision of the Russian lunar exploration strategy with robotic spacecraft at the 14th simposium on the exploration of the Solar System at IKI in Moscow:
The plan retained the launch date for the next Russian lunar mission — the Luna-26 orbiter — in 2027, despite earlier hopes for accelerating its development. A recent proposal to build the second copy of the failed Luna-25 lander was also rejected due to lack of hardware and contractor support for implementing such a project in reasonable time.
Instead, the strategy penciled the next Russian attempt to land a robotic probe on the surface of the Moon for 2028, but added a backup flight version of the lander into the program without a definitive launch date. As stipulated more than decade earlier, the program would then proceed with an attempt to return frozen samples of lunar soil from the South Pole region. The exact date of the mission was no longer specified but it was assumed to be possible no earlier than at the turn of the 2030s.
The plan also envisioned the implementation of the previously proposed concepts of a roving vehicle on the Moon, now identified as Luna-30, and the introduction of a robotic shuttle vehicle for multiple deliveries of soil samples from the Moon to the lunar orbit in the first half of the next decade. The latter concept, previously known as Korvet (INSIDER CONTENT), was now identified as Luna-31. It was conceived to operate in conjunction with infrastructure in the lunar orbit, but the 2023 version of the strategy had no indication about the architecture of the Luna-31 project.
However, with the assumption that the Luna-26 orbiter would not last long enough to provide communications for lunar missions in the 2030s, the plan also envisioned the launch of another orbiter around 2031 to support the subsequent landers. Interestingly, it was identified as "orbital station" — the term that implies a piloted vehicle.
As often before, the latest strategy relied on the development time frames that had never been demonstrated by NPO Lavochkin in comparable projects in the past three decades.
A depiction of the Luna-26 orbiter circa 2023. Click to enlarge. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
Luna-Resurs (Luna-27) lander as of 2023. Click to enlarge. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
Depictions of the Luna-Grunt mission released in 2017. Credit: NPO Lavochkin