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Luna-Glob spacecraft

Russian plan to land on Jupiter's moon Ganymede

At the end of 2013, the Russian government allocated "seed" money for what could become the nation's first planetary mission into the Jupiter's system. However, due to complexity and cost of the project, it had to be essentially shelved in 2017.

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A concept of the Russian mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, as it was envisioned in 2009. The project was later refocused from Europa to Ganymede and split into two separately launched spacecraft -- an orbiter and a lander. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Renewed Russian-European cooperation might propel it all the way to Jupiter

A steady increase of the Russian space budget in the first decade of the 21st century revived hopes among the nation's planetary scientists for sending a mission to Jupiter. Even the Soviet Union never managed to implement its early plans for exploring destinations beyond the orbit of Mars, leaving it to US spacecraft first to reach vicinity of giant planets in the outer Solar System. Yet, data and images sent back by NASA's Pioneer and Voyager probes only expanded the horizons for exploration. Particularly, moons of Jupiter, which have fascinated astronomers since Galileo, revealed unique and diverse worlds with a potential to harbor life. In the 1990s, NASA continued the exploration of Jupiter's mini-Solar System with the remarkably successful Galileo mission, while Russian scientists could only sketch very preliminary plans for a comparable project. These plans became a basis for further studies during an economic recovery of the 2000s.

Origin of the Laplas mission

In 2007, the European Space Agency, ESA, decided to launch a probe named Laplace to coincide with NASA's mission dubbed the Europa Orbiter and Jupiter System Observer. A joint project named EJSM-Laplace would explore most intriguing moons of Jupiter -- Europa and Ganymede. (625) The same year, the Russian Academy of Sciences, RAN, expressed interest in contributing a lander that would descent on the icy surface of the most intriguing Jovian moon -- Europa.

In early 2008, ESA and NASA formed Joint Science Definition Team, JSDT, which quickly proposed a share of responsibilities between the US and Europe:

  • ESA would develop, launch on the Ariane-5 rocket and control a solar-powered Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter, JGO;
  • NASA would develop, launch on the Atlas-551 rocket and control a nuclear generator-powered Jupiter Europa Orbiter, JEO;

Prior to entering orbits of their respective moons in 2026, two spacecraft would fly similar trajectories to Jupiter with more than 100 kilograms of complementary instruments, each conducting flybys of Jovian moons Ganymede, Europa, Callisto and Io.

Russian planning

While the US-European Jupiter mission was hatched, Russian specialists considered a parallel project initially dubbed Sokol-Laplas-P, where "P" stood for "posadka" (landing). Other sources from the period identified the mission as Laplas-Evropa-P, emphasizing its ultimate goal -- a landing on Europa. Prior to the US-European agreement on EJSM-Laplace, the Russian mission to Jupiter was expected to lift off on a Proton-M/Briz-M or an Angara rocket no earlier than in 2023 or 2024. However following the decision to parallel the European effort, its launch date was advanced to 2020 or 2021 respectively.

During preliminary studies in 2008 and 2009, Russian planners added an orbital vehicle to the mission, so that it could provide a communications link between the lander and ground control, independent of the capabilities of the European spacecraft.

By 2009, Russian engineers also evaluated two ways to reach Jupiter. The first scenario involved traditional chemical propulsion and required flybys in the vicinity of Venus and the Earth to use their gravitational fields for acceleration. The second scenario relied on an electrically propelled space tug and needed only one flyby of the Earth on the way to Jupiter. That second option was ultimately chosen as the only practical solution for the project.

To minimize electronics-busting radiation near Jupiter, the spacecraft would follow a complex spiral to enter 100-kilometer circular orbit around Europa after circling its host planet for almost two years and conducting multiple flybys of Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. In the next two months, the orbital module would peer at the icy surface of Europa in search for a safe landing site, hopefully with a water ocean locked beneath. The landing vehicle would then separate from the orbiter and land on Europa with the help of a special one-component propellant in order to minimize the contamination of the pristine alien world.

Russian scientists and their colleagues abroad brainstormed various payloads for the lander, including a penetrating probe with a radioactive heater that could melt its way through the icy crust to a purported ocean. A rover was also considered. One idea also included shooting an explosive shell from the orbiter into the surface and then sending a lander into the impact crater, in the hope of finding and analyzing sub-surface material ejected by the blast. (627) However, for the time, planners had to settle for a stationary lander.

The design of the landing module would derive from the yet-to-be-developed Luna-Glob mission. In turn, the orbiter could borrow its systems from the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt project. (626) Both spacecraft would be powered by radioisotope thermal generators, RTGs.

Switching to Ganymede

Due to financial problems, NASA had to withdraw from the EJSM-Laplace project by 2012. ESA still hoped to press forward with its own spacecraft renamed JUICE, for Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer. It was rescheduled to lift off in June 2022 and was expected to make two flybys of Jupiter's moon Europa (thus fulfilling some goals of the canceled US probe), and also flyby Callisto and then enter orbit around Ganymede. The JUICE project competed for the ESA funding with the Athena orbital observatory, however the former was declared a winner on May 2, 2012. Still, all these plans were riding on ESA's bet for a free ride on the Russian Proton rocket.

In the meantime, Russian developers concluded that radiation conditions in Europa's vicinity would be too difficult to overcome with available technology and funding. As a result, at the end of 2011, the Russian lander was diverted from Europa to Ganymede, whose orbit kept it farther away from Jupiter's powerful radiation field. At its new destination, the lander could conveniently use the European orbiter as a relay station for communications with ground control. Both missions would reach vicinity of Jupiter around 2030.

In 2012, Russia promised to provide three Proton rockets to launch Europe's cash-strapped ExoMars 2016, ExoMars-2018 missions and the JUICE spacecraft, essentially bailing out beleaguered projects. The move obviously gave Russian scientists a real chance to see their instruments and experiments reaching Mars in 2016 and 2018 and, in the following decade, flying beyond it, all the way to the moons of Jupiter.

The Russian side also proposed to power the JUICE spacecraft by a Russian-built radioisotope power generator, RTG, replacing solar panels that would be vulnerable to Jupiter's radiation. Upon entering orbit around Ganymede, JUICE could be employed to pinpoint the exact landing site for the Russian Laplas-P lander. In turn, the Laplas-P lander could be equipped with a European-built, high-precision landing guidance system. Obviously, both European orbiter and the Russian lander would conduct a well coordinated scientific program, including an effort to detect signs of life on the icy moon. (629) Finally, the Russian lander could inherit science gear developed for preceding Russian-European planetary experiments, such as a surface drill from the ExoMars and Luna-Resurs missions.

Launch schedule

In August 2012, a presentation by NPO Lavochkin promised the launch of the Laplas-P mission in 2022 to coincide with the JUICE project. By that time, the Russian part of the project included a lander and its electric cruise stage. The Russian-built orbiter was deleted from the Laplas-P program and all its functions were transferred to the European JUICE spacecraft. However in March 2013, the deputy head of NPO Lavochkin Maksim Martynov told the official RIA Novosti news agency that the two spacecraft -- orbiter and the 800-killogram lander -- would be launched to Ganymede in 2023. Carried by the Proton or Angara rocket with a Briz upper stage, they would conduct one flyby of Venus, two flybys of the Earth and reach the Jupiter system in 2029, Martynov was quoted as saying. Another year and a half would be required for the spacecraft to enter orbit around Ganymede. Both spacecraft would be carrying around 50 kilograms of scientific instruments. The lander would be powered by a nuclear generator, while the orbiter could be equipped either with an RTG or with solar panels, ensuring at least several months of operation for both spacecraft.

By March 2013, NPO Lavochkin had completed the preliminary studies, NIR, of the Laplas mission. According to Roskosmos officials, the first funding of between 10 and 30 million rubles for the development of the Laplas project, known in Russian as OKR, was to start in 2014. This phase of the project was to continue until 2017, when the manufacturing of first prototypes was expected to start.

A tender for the technical proposal

At the end of 2013, Roskosmos allocated 50 million rubles ($1.52 million) to develop a technical proposal for the Laplas-P mission by the end of 2015. According to technical requirements for the spacecraft released with the federal tender documentation on Dec. 27, 2013, Laplas-P would feature two spacecraft launched by a pair of heavy launch vehicles onto a journey to Jupiter lasting from seven to nine years.

The technical proposal for the mission known as Laplas-P would have to be ready by Nov. 25, 2015.

The 4,000-kilogram Laplas-P1 spacecraft would feature an orbital module, OM, and a main propulsion system, MDU. Laplas-P2 spacecraft would consist of an MDU propulsion system and a 950-kilogram landing vehicle, PA. Following the Laplas-P1, it would first enter orbit around Ganymede and then dispatch the PA lander onto the moon's surface. The lander would deliver around 50 kilograms of scientific instruments on Ganymede's surface for a year-long study. Both spacecraft were to have an operational life time lasting from 11 to 13 years, including three years allocated for a pre-launch processing.

Laplas-P put off until better times

By 2014, the launch of Laplas-P spacecraft was put off until 2026, but the entire Jupiter campaign looked increasingly unlikely as much less challengining Russian planetary projects were being continously delayed. In July 2017, the head of the Space Research Institute, IKI, Lev Zeleny told the official TASS news agency that financial problems had required to choose between the Venera-D and Laplas-P projects. Not surprisingly, given some prospects for the cooperation with the US on the exploration of Venus and a high complexity of the mission to Jupiter for the Russian space program, the IKI leadership gave up on the Laplas-P project for the time being.


Laplas-P spacecraft mass specifications:

Orbital module mass
395 kilograms
Landing vehicle dry mass
550 kilograms
Propulsion system mass
385 kilograms
Electric space tug mass
860 kilograms
Connecting truss
70 kilograms
Spacecraft dry mass
2,260 kilograms
Electric space tug propellant mass
1,435 kilograms
Propellant mass for the attitude control and orbit correction system
2,005 kilograms
Landing module propellant
660 kilograms
Spacecraft fueled mass
6,360 kilograms


Known specifications of the landing vehicle in the Laplas-P mission:

Lander initial mass
1,210 kilograms
Lander propellant mass
660 kilograms
Lander mass on the surface
550 kilograms
Payload mass onboard the orbiter
50 kilograms (626)
Payload mass onboard the lander
60 kilograms (626)
Lander's propulsion system thrust
3,000 Newton
Propulsion system specific impulse
220 seconds


Initial orbit around Jupiter (as of 2009):

Pericenter radius
900,000 kilometers
Apocenter radius
20,000,000 kilometers
Orbital period
200 days


An example of mission timeline (as of 2009; it is no longer valid):

2017 Dec. 13
Earth gravity assist
2019 March 8
Arrival to Jupiter
2022 Jan. 1
Entering of Europa orbit
2024 January
Landing on Europa
2024 March


Mission timeline (as of 2013):

Venus gravity assist flyby
First Earth gravity assist flyby
Second Earth gravity assist flyby
Arrival to Jupiter
Entering of Ganymede orbit


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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Original publication date: Jan. 27, 2013; Last update: July 22, 2017

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A scale model of the first European spacecraft proposed to explore Jupiter's mini-solar system. It never flew. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak

NASA lander

NASA considered ideas for sending a probe below the surface of the Jovian moon Europa, but the project had never materialized. Copyright © 2012 Anatoly Zak


An early depiction of the Laplas-P Europa lander. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


A preliminary concept of a Russian spacecraft to land on the Jovian moon Europa as of 2009. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Exploded view

Main components of the Laplas spacecraft as of 2009. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


Laplas-P spacecraft during its approach to Jupiter, following the separation from the electric space tug. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


In 2008-2009, an orbiter was added to the Laplas mission. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


A concept of the landing vehicle for Europa was based on the Luna-Glob spacecraft. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


A concept of Laplas orbiter as of beginning of 2013. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


A concept of Laplas lander as of beginning of 2013. Credit: NPO Lavochkin