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Launch of a E1 probe.
Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A backup copy of the E1 spacecraft, which was the first to escape Earth gravity. Click to enlarge.
The E1A spacecraft. It differed from E1 by the position of the solar wind detectors. Those on the upper and lower hemisphere were at the same "longitude" on the E1 but 90 degrees apart on the E1A. The magnetometer boom was also different. Click to enlarge.
The backup copy of the E3 spacecraft, which was the first to swing around the Moon and to photograph its dark side.
The E6 spacecraft. Click to enlarge: 300 by 400 pixels / 44 KB. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak
The Luna-9 lander. Copyright © 2009, 2000 Anatoly Zak
The E6-S lunar-orbiting spacecraft in pr-launch configuration. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
The E8-5 lunar sample return spacecraft during prelaunch processing. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
The ascent stage of the E8-5 spacecraft, which delivered soil samples from the lunar surface back to Earth.
The reentry capsule of the E8-5 spacecraft in landing configuration.
A full-scale prototype of the Lunokhod-1 rover, which landed on the surface of the Moon on Nov. 17, 1970. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
The Lunokhod-3, the unflown successor to the Lunokhod-1 and 2 rovers, which worked on the lunar surface.
The landing platform, which delivered automated lunar rovers on the surface of the Moon.
The artist rendering of the E8-5M lunar sample return spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
Above: The Soviet E6 Luna lander during a cruise to the Moon.
The USSR pioneered the exploration of the Moon with a series of unmanned missions from 1958 to 1976. Below is a complete list of unmanned Soviet lunar missions:
*In the second column the table gives the name of the spacecraft as they were identified in the classified paperwork by their development centers, while the third column shows the name announced in the Soviet press. The missions which did not reach the orbit would not be acknowledged at all at the time. The spacecraft, which fail in low orbit would normally receive Cosmos name.
Note: This table includes missions conducted within Soviet L1 and N-1/L-3 projects. Although all of them flew unmanned, they tested hardware, which was developed with the goal of landing a man on the Moon.
Although the USSR virtually abandoned lunar exploration with the end of the Moon race in mid-1970s, Russian scientists still saw the Moon as a potential target for research. During the 1980s, a lunar polar orbiter, LSN (1L), was one of several space missions proposed for a newly developed spacecraft platform developed at NPO Lavochkin. However, at the time, the lunar mission lost in priority to Mars-bound projects.
Origin of the Luna-Glob project
Only after the fall of the Soviet Union and the following a decade of economic turmoil, another lunar exploration project -- Luna-Glob -- made it into the Russian space p rogram at the beginning of the 21st century.
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. In his new position, Galimov became a strong lobbiest for the return to the Moon.
On Sept. 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, usually tasked to determine 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, NIR, 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 carrying high-speed surface penetrators, with the launch date no later than the end of 1998.
Surface penetrators were first developed for the Mars-96 mission and were considered to be a relatively low-tech way of obtaining information from beneath the lunar surface. However the devices in the Martian mission used parachutes, which were not much help in the airless lunar environment. As a result, 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 lunar surface provided an ideal location for astrophysics research and that 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 moon 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, thanks to the possibility of using medium-lift and relatively inexpensive Molniya rocket. (Molniya could deliver seven tons to the low Earth orbit, including its fourth stage.) (At the time, international missions within Spektr series were main big ticket items in the Russian space science budget.) The Russian space agency director Yuri Koptev, the veteran of NPO Lavochkin himself, took Galimov's proposals seriously by commissioning TsNIIMash research institute, the agency's main think tank, 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 the lander with the rover into the Russian space program.
On Dec. 18, 1996, following a fiasco with the launch of Mars-96 probe, Galimov wrote an official letter to the president of 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 conviniently 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 procursor for the mission to Phobos 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 Solar System exploration program in Russia. The document agreed upon by all major Russian planetary science institutions and the industry was submitted to the Russian space agency and to the Academy of Sciences . The only exception was Moscow-based Space Research Insitute, IKI, the key Russian organization in planetary science exploration, since its team still held some hope to re-fly Mars-96 mission as soon as the next window to Mars would open 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 of 1996-2000 had already been approved and not counting the ill-fated Mars-96 provided no funding for planetary missions.
After consideration of all proposals made under most difficult financial situation in Russia, the Planetary Section within the Academy of Science Space Council approved three deep-space launches:
In the 1997 space budget, some seed money was provided for these projects. During 1997-1998, the price tag of the Luna-27 project was estimated at 250-280 billion rubles (or $50 million). After being called Luna-27 and Luna-Geokhimik, the project became known as Luna-Glob, as proposed by Yu. A. Surkov, a chief developer at Vernadsky GEOKhI, who also gave the Phobos-Grunt project its name.
During 1997, based on the technical assignment from the Vernadsky GEOKhI institute, NPO Lavochkin worked on the preliminary design of the Luna-Glob spacecraft compatible with the Molniya rocket. Also, mockups of scientific instruments were developed and manufactured. GEOKhI issued and documented technical proposals for both Luna-Glob and Mars-Aster.
On Oct. 27, 1997, the planetary section of the Space Council of the Academy of Sciences requested a full-scale development, (known in Russia as OKR), for 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, with the Russian economy in a tailspin, the Kremlin had to make many very hard choices. In space science program, the Russian government was tied by international agreements on the Spektr project, a trio of sophisticated orbital observatories, with a partially-completed Spektr-RG telescope, being first in line. Since Russia and her international partners had already invested millions of dollars into the program, all other (cheaper) space science projects had to be axed in the ultimately fruitless attempt to save at least Spektr-RG.
In May 1998, the planetary section was directed to leave either one lunar mission or the Phobos mission in the Russian space plans for the next seven years. Thus, the nation's planetary program would have at least one project, which had a chance to fly before 2005, money provided. With their backs to the wall, planetary scientists chose Phobos-Grunt, as the most unique and sophisticated mission. Scientists could only hope that the eventual economic recovery in Russia would lead to the renewed interest in lunar exploration.
On June 2, 1998, the Planetary Section of the Russian Academy of Sciences made an official decision to preserve Phobos-Grunt, with the expected launch date five years later -- in 2003. The lunar exploration was deferred to a better times, but not officially abandoned.
With the improvement of the Russian economy in the second post-Soviet decade, Russia started developing a multi-step program in unmanned lunar exploration. The first Luna-Glob lunar orbiter could be followed by a lander, which was initially known as Luna-Glob-2 and was later designated as Luna-Resurs. A standard lander developed for Luna-Resurs could be reused in further missions to the Moon and beyond. Luna-Resurs could be followed by the Luna-Grunt dual mission, which would carry a rover and the ascent stage to return lunar samples back to Earth. Hardware developed for Luna-Glob, Luna-Resurs and Luna-Grunt missions could ultimately be used to establish so-called Lunny Poligon (Lunar Range), featuring a series of stationary and movable facilities on the surface of the Moon.
Following the Phobos-Grunt fiasco in November 2011, a new Russian plan for unmanned lunar exploration had emerged by the beginning of 2012. Although launch dates of the upcoming missions had to be delayed in order to learn the lessons of Phobos-Grunt, the unmanned lunar exploration program received a priority among planetary missions. Relative proximity of the Moon could enable Russian engineers to regain experience in navigating deep-space missions and rebuilt Soviet potential in planetary landing. A total of five launches were now planned, with an ultimate goal of delivering samples of the lunar soil back to Earth following a decade-long effort. The original Luna-Glob mission was split into a landing mission and an orbiter.
Russian Moon missions face three-year delay in 2014
Unmanned lunar missions designed to revive Russia's troubled deep-space exploration program will lift off three years later than previously promised. An official announcement of the nation's space science program at a major scientific summit in Moscow revealed significantly delayed launch dates for a trio of lunar probes.
During the 40th assembly of the Committee on Space Research, COSPAR, opened in Moscow on Saturday, Lev Zeleny, the director of the Space Research Institute, IKI, revealed latest schedule for the Russian planetary exploration and space science program. Although all previously approved projects still remain on the table, the nation's series of lunar missions face a domino effect of delays.
Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak
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Last update: April 4, 2016