Russia is developing a renewed robotic moon exploration program, building upon the history-making legacy of orbiters, landers, rovers and sample-return missions the country launched decades ago.
Russia's rekindling of an aggressive moon exploration plan was unveiled by Igor Mitrofanov of the Institute for Space Research (IKI) in Moscow during Microsymposium 54 on "Lunar Farside and Poles — New Destinations for Exploration," held in The Woodlands, Texas, on March 16 and 17.
The microsymposium was co-sponsored by Brown University, Russia's Vernadsky Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the NASA Lunar Science Institute.
Notable lunar firsts
Russia launched its last moon mission in August 1976, when it was still the Soviet Union. That mission, called Luna 24, was the last in the Luna series and featured a spacecraft that landed on the moon and returned samples of the Mare Crisium (Sea of Crisis) region. [10 Surprising Moon Facts]
The former Soviet Union's robotic lunar program achieved a number of notable "firsts" on Earth's satellite, including the first spacecraft to impact the moon; first flyby and photograph of the lunar farside; first soft landing on the lunar surface; first lunar orbiter; first circumlunar probe to return to Earth; first automatic return of lunar samples; and, of course, the first moon rover Lunokhod.
Today, Russian space scientists are scripting a new plan to reconnect with the moon.
"Exploration of the moon is an important part of the program," Mitrofanov said. 'I just want to emphasize that Russia is a spacefaring country not only with the robotic but also manned flight."
Mitrofanov said that the lunar pole is a most favorable place for future outposts for humans in deep space and emphasized that moon exploration was a step toward future Mars journeys.
At the microsymposium, Mitrofanov discussed Russia's moon mission schedule over the next several years. "Depending on the success of these [first] three missions, another two will be implemented," he said.
Those five potential moon missions would launch in the following order:
2015 — Luna 25 (Luna Glob Lander):A small lander on the moon's south pole that would analyze lunar regolith and local exosphere and test volatiles from less than 2 feet (50 centimeters) subsurface. This spacecraft would showcase lunar landing system technology, communication systems and longtime operations.
2016 — Luna 26 (Luna Glob Orbiter): An orbiter for the moon in a 60-mile-high (100 kilometers) polar circular orbit. It would globally map the lunar surface, measure the exosphere and plasma around the moon and carry out reconnaissance of landing sites for lunar exploration, exhibiting longtime orbital operations and global mapping.
2017 — Luna 27 (Luna Resource-1): A large lander sent to the moon's south pole to study lunar regolith and local exosphere; it would also test for volatiles in the lunar subsurface. This lander would also test a drilling system for cryogenic sampling of the moon.
2019 — Luna 28 (Luna-Resource-2): A "to be determined (TBD)" mission f that is a polar moon sample return involving cryogenic delivery of lunar samples back to Earth. This mission would help develop return flight system technology for transiting between the moon and Earth.
2020 — Luna 29 (Luna-Resource-3): Another TBD mission. This spacecraft would carry a Lunokhod — a large, long-distance moon rover. Once on the prowl, the wheeled device would study the lunar surface at a distance of about 20 miles (30 km) and conduct cryogenic cashing of the lunar subsurface.
Mitrofanov said that Russia's robotic moon planners "have taken into account" the disaster with its Phobos-Grunt Mars mission in 2011-2012 — a failure due to reported poor management, technical glitches and a hurry to launch schedule.
But the moon is much closer to the Earth than Mars, offering more flexibility in launching lunar probes.
"In this case, we have no astronomical window for the moon," Mitrofanov said.
U.S. scientists said that it is important to keep in mind that Russia is no newcomer to moon exploration. The former Soviet Union, of course, was the chief competitor to the U.S. and NASA during the Space Race to put human explorers on the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, Soviet scientists were prolific developing moon-bound robotic probes. [Vintage Spacecraft Still on the Moon (Infographic)]
James Head of the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I. and symposium organizer, said, "keep in mind that this is Luna 25, 26, and 27 … and these aren't numbers taken out of the sky."
These are numbers that continue the sequences of missions that the former Soviet Union has already flown, Head said, most of them very successfully.
"Putting rovers on the moon, about doing automated sample returns from various places … accomplished by the Soviet Union over 40 years ago, multiple times. There is great technology there … there is the ability to do this," Head said.
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and co-author of Buzz Aldrin's new book, "Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration," out in May from National Geographic. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on SPACE.com.