World Review | Russia’s missions to Moon and Mars could see it lead space race

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Russia’s missions to Moon and Mars could see it lead space race

Russia’s missions to Moon and Mars could see it lead space race
Rocket launching from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome (photo: dpa)

RUSSIA has announced an ambitious space programme which could see the nation dominating modern space exploration - and salvage its reputation after a slew of failed space missions in 2012.

Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, has announced plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the moon in 2015. This will be Russia’s first unmanned lunar mission since the Soviet era.

Other plans include landing men on the moon, building a lunar base – invaluable as a scientific research base for future deep-space projects - and missions to Venus and Mars.

At the end of 2012 the head of Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, announced that US$70 billion (2.1 trillion rubles) would be spent on its space budget before 2020.

The investment will ensure continued participation in projects such as the International Space Station, as well as the exploration programmes to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The former Soviet Union was a key player in the Cold War space race following its launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, which triggered the race to land a man on the Moon.

The Soviet Union claimed numerous firsts, including the launch of the first human into orbit - cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961. In later years, the Soviet Union claimed the first women in space and the first spacewalk.

While Russia has remained a space superpower to the present day, a diminished budget, insufficient testing and an ageing work force have been blamed for a string of launch failures over the last 18 months. Among them was the first mission to bring back samples from Mars’s moon Phobos.

The workhorse Proton rocket had three failures in 16 months. The most recent failure of the rocket was in December 2012 when it placed a telecommunications satellite into the wrong orbit.

Russia played a leading role in lunar exploration in the 1960s and 70s.

New plans to revive lunar exploration will focus on missions to return lunar samples and a long-term goal of building a lunar base. The space agency plans to make its first return to the Moon in 2015 with Luna Glob, the first of four planned missions that will deploy a combination of orbiters, landers and rovers between 2015 and 2022.

A robotic lunar base is envisaged in the 2020s. A return to Venus is also planned.

Russia has expressed interest in joining Europe in going to Mars as part of the ExoMars project planned for 2016 and 2018.

Russia also plans to launch new astrophysical telescopes over the next decade in a bid to reclaim the nation’s stake in this aspect of scientific research and

provide new details of astrophysical objects such as black holes, the products of dead stars whose gravitational fields are so strong that not even light can escape.

The RadioAstron programme will rely on international cooperation and hopes to provide answers to some of the Universe’s biggest unsolved mysteries in the field of cosmology and astrophysics.

Another development comes from the Russian space rocket company, Energia, which has completed the technical design of a new spacecraft that could transport humans to the Moon and the International Space Station. Flight tests are reportedly scheduled to begin in 2017.

Much attention on the nation’s space activities fell on the launch failures during the first years of the new decade. But these failures coincided with a hectic launch rate.

In 2012 Russia’s launches well exceeded that of the two other leading space faring nations, the US and China, with 27 successful launches versus China’s 19 and the US’s 13.

Although the budget and goals for the next seven years are laid out, experts still fear that delays may occur because of funding constraints for such an ambitious programme.

But international collaboration can be expected to play a key role in meeting such impressive exploration goals.

Dr Emily Baldwin

Dr Emily Baldwin is an expert in planetary science, with a PhD from University College, London, specialising in asteroid impacts into the earth and moon. Her thesis was titled ‘Investigat ...

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