India and Russia’s battle to become the first nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the Moon’s south pole has taken a twist.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos has confirmed it lost communication with its Luna-25 probe just before noon UTC on Saturday. It was later found to have entered an uncontrolled spin before smashing into the lunar surface.
“The apparatus moved into an unpredictable orbit and ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the surface of the moon,” read a statement from Roscosmos.
If it landed successfully on Monday, Luna-25 would have become the first spacecraft to set down on the Moon’s south pole. By extension, Russia would have pipped its space rivals to the milestone of exploring the relatively unknown region, believed to hold ice deposits and rare metals.
Prior to the Luna-25 assignment, Russia’s last Moon mission was 47 years ago.
Instead, India has a chance to earn the prestige. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft is currently in orbit around the Moon, with a touchdown of its Vikram lander set for 10:34pm AEST (12:34pm UTC) on Wednesday.
If all goes well, its hatch will swing open to release ISRO’s Moon rover, which will explore the area for water and acquire samples of surface material.
India has come close to history once before. In 2019, its Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft also lost control and slammed into the lunar south pole.
If ISRO’s second attempt is successful, it will be at a fraction of the price of its competitor space programs. While NASA and the European Space Agency’s bills hit nine figures or more, Chandrayaan-3 was launched on a budget of just $117 million (6.1 billion rupees, US$75 million).
It will be tracked by NASA’s Deep Space Network of satellite antennas in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra in the lead-up to landing.