moon dust cloud
A new era of race to the moon begins with Russia and India planning to land their newly launched lunar missions on the same date. Daniel Morgan and Jamey Szalay

The race to the moon and of lunar exploration entered a new phase of space technology and space business as India launched its third moon mission Chandrayaan-3 last month followed by Russia launching Luna-25 on Friday.

This comes at a time when NASA celebrated 54 years of the iconic 1969 Apollo moon landing mission on July 20 and India joined the Artemis Accord initiated by the US.

Lunar missions to explore the lunar south pole

Now the focus has shifted to exploring a new part of the moon as both the Indian and the Russian spacecraft are scheduled to land on the south pole of the moon by August 21 to 23. While both missions seek to explore the southern part of the moon where frozen water has been found, the two missions are done quite differently.

Russia, a pioneer in the field, is re-entering the lunar exploration field after 47 years while India has been going steady with its lunar exploration projects in the last decade.

The lunar south pole is crucial because of the presence of ice which makes it an interesting prospect for future space businesses. This makes both lunar missions important in understanding the lunar surface.

This comes at a time when machine learning has developed new ways of collecting space data by satellites.

Race to the moon – who's coming first?

India's Chandrayaan-3 was launched on July 14 and it took more than 15 days to enter the lunar orbit on August 5 and is scheduled for the lunar south pole landing by August 23. Russia's Luna-25 launched on August 10 will reach the moon in less than 15 days having spent 5 to 7 days in the lunar orbit and landing on August 21. While Luna-25 has a payload of 30 kg, Chandrayaan-3's payload is 3900 kg.

The Indian Space Research Organisation tweeted images of pictures of the Earth and the lunar surface taken by Chandrayaan-3 which is now orbiting the moon.

With a potential earlier soft landing date Russia could beat India in this race by a small margin as Luna-25 attempts to land on the South pole of the moon after selecting the best sites for landing out of three probable choices. While the Russian spacecraft Luna-25 will soft land near Boguslavsky crater at the lunar South pole, the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-3 will land between Manzinus C and Simpelius N craters on the South pole of the moon.

Russia is trying to recreate the success of its 1970s lunar missions while the Indian Space Research Organisation is treading cautiously after the initial failures of its first two lunar missions. Hence, the Russian spacecraft is named Luna-25 continuing with the Luna-27 sequence. The Indian spacecraft derives its name from the Sanskrit word "Chandrayaan" which means "journey to the moon".

It's in line with the previous two lunar missions Chandrayaan-1 and Chandrayaan-2. In Sanskrit, the moon is called "Chandra" while "yaan" means "a machine used for a journey". Another key aspect of the third Indian lunar mission is the number of women behind it. There are 54 women working on this project which is led by a women scientist Ritu Karidhal.

These 54 women scientists are actively involved in the Chandrayaan-3 mission and report directly to project managers and deputy directors. Karidhal was the mission director in Chandrayaan-2 but now she is a project lead. The mission director of Chandrayaan-3 is Mohan Kumar.

The third Indian lunar mission Chandrayaan-3 is markedly different from the previous two lunar missions of India, Chandrayaan-1 and Chandrayaan-2.

On August 9, the Indian Space Research Organisation made some changes in the manoeuvring of Chandrayaan-3 to align to lunar orbit, making it complete the third burn in the moon-bound phase. The Indian Space Agency has planned a series of such moon-bound manoeuvres in order to successfully land the orbiter of the spacecraft. At least three moon-bound manoeuvres will be done by August 17.

If Chandrayaan-3 is successful, India will join the elite power of lunar mission-conducting nations like Russia, the United States and China. With this India will become the fourth country with a successful moon mission, the first one in Southeast Asia

Russia on the other hand, is a pioneer in the field of space exploration including lunar explorations. Russia's lunar missions started in the soviet-era when it sent Luna-2 in 1959, the first spacecraft to reach the lunar surface. This was followed by the Luna-9 mission in 1966 which was the first soft landing on the moon.

Although they were failures, India's first two moon missions Chandrayaan-1 and Chandrayaan-2 were able to shed some light about the lunar surface. The first one, Chandrayaan-1 launched in October 2008 found evidence of water on the lunar surface.

The second moon mission of India, Chandrayaan-2 failed to launch at first but later was successfully launched in the same month and year in 2019. However, the spacecraft crashed into the lunar surface and the Indian Space Research Organisation lost all contact with it. This led to many changes and upgradation in the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft including ways to make sure it deorbits and lands safely in case of loss of signal.

How did India manoeuvre through its failures?

ISRO made the following changes to the latest moon mission to make it successful.

  • While Chandrayaan-2 had a lander, an orbiter and a rover, Chandrayaan-3 doesn't have an orbiter, instead, it has a propulsion module for safe landing. The lander in Chandrayaan-3 is equipped with a lunar seismic activity ILSA measuring instrument which enables it to measure the plasma density on the moon.
  • The weight of the third lunar mission spacecraft is 3,900 kg, increased from 3,850 kg of the previous mission. This includes a 2,148 kg propulsion module, an 1852 lander module and a 26 kg rover module.
  • ISRO has also adjusted the timeline of the spacecraft making it a short-duration one rather than the long-duration one of the earlier failed mission. The second lunar mission was designed to last for seven years while this is designed to last for 3 to 6 months.
  • The number of cameras and their potential for detecting hazards have increased in the new lunar mission. Chandrayaan-2 had one camera while Chandrayaan-3 has two cameras with enhanced features and robust techniques to detect hazards better.
  • The number of in-situ instruments has gone down from nine in Chandrayaan-2 to just one in Chandrayaan-3. The third lunar mission has a Spectro Polarimetry of Habitable Planetary Earth (SHAPE) which enables it to study the earth from the lunar orbit which is already showcased by recent images taken by the spacecraft.
  • The Chandrayaan-3 has an additional feature called the Laser Retroreflector Array or LRA which is there in the lander. With this instrument the lander can conduct secondary experiments on the lunar surface, making it more useful in understanding the lunar system.

The only similarity between the previous failed moon lander of India and the current landing mission is that both were designed for soft landings with a lander and a rover equipped in doing lunar soil experiments.

Coincidence not competition

The Russian space agency has made it clear that they are not competing with the Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO as the two missions' objectives are very different. After Friday's launch, ISRO congratulated Russia on the successful launch of Luna-25 on the social media platform X, previously known as Twitter.

Different approaches to the lunar exploration of the lunar missions

The two spacecraft might be reaching the moon on the same day but they will do it differently

Objectives: While Luna-25 will study the lunar surface material and dust and plasma components of the lunar atmosphere, the Chandrayaan-3 rover and lander seeks to do a safe landing even if sensors don't work. The objective of the Indian mission is to do in-situ experiments on the lunar surface to understand its composition better.

Budget: India's budget for this mission is 615 crore in Indian rupees which is equivalent to 5.8 million pounds whereas Russia has spent 100-200 million Russian roubles equivalent to 1.6 million pounds on the Luna-25 mission.

Structure: Structurally both the landers of the Russian and Indian are different as they are carrying out different functions. While Luna-25 is a four-legged landed equipped with propellant tanks and landing rockets, India's Chandrayaan-3 is equipped with a rover and a propulsion module along with a lander module. Chandrayaan-3 has scientific payloads to perform chemical analysis of the lunar surface whereas Luna-25 has onboard computers, solar panels and communication equipment.

Instruments: The payloads in both spacecraft are different and suited for the respective missions. Luna 25 has a range of spectrometers like infrared, gamma-ray, neutron and mass spectrometers along with imaging systems while Chandrayaan-3 is equipped with surface thermophysical experiment probes, Alpha Particle X-ray spectrometer and Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscope.

Landing: While the Russian spacecraft will search for a favourable landing site out of three probable choices, Chandrayaan-3 is landing at a different surface on the lunar south pole with specific lunar coordinates. The landing site dimension of the Indian mission is four by 2.4 km.

Duration: The mission duration of India is far less and well-demarcated than the Russian Mission which will be on the lunar surface for close to a year. Compared to that India's Chandrayaan-3 lander and rover will be on the moon for 14 days which is equivalent to one day on the moon.

Both missions will be part of the race to develop businesses on the moon as scientists seek to understand the presence of ice and other surface minerals on the lunar surface in order to use them for potential fuel, oxygen and drinking water extraction in the future.