In a complex interplay of innovation and adversity, humanity’s pursuit of lunar landings has yielded a mixture of triumphant successes and humbling setbacks. The latest chapter unfolded on Saturday as Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft unexpectedly crashed into the moon, foiling its scheduled landing attempt just two days prior.
This incident adds to the annals of lunar history, marked by a sequence of impacts, belly flops, and hard landings – a constellation of outcomes ranging from intentional maneuvers to unforeseen mishaps – that stretches back to 1959, when the Soviet Union’s Luna-2 became the pioneer probe to impact the lunar surface.
Wednesday will witness India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission in its daring endeavor to achieve a moon landing, with subsequent missions poised to follow suit in the upcoming months.
**Decades of Lunar Impact**
A mosaic of nations, encompassing seven space programs and a private enterprise, has contributed to the lunar saga of hard landings: The Soviet Union, United States, Japan, European Space Agency, India, China, Israel, and Ispace. The global map of crash locations reflects this intricate tapestry, drawing upon Moon imagery from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera via NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio. While certain crash types, such as used rocket engines and empty Apollo lunar modules, remain omitted, the locations underscore the diversity of landing outcomes. It is worth noting that certain locales are approximations, and some crash sites remain yet to be definitively ascertained.
These lunar encounters are not devoid of significance; they encapsulate lessons learned. Each collision, whether unintentional or by design, unveils valuable insights. Such crashes expose design vulnerabilities, unmask software glitches, and unveil sublunar materials that may fuel future scientific study.
**India’s Unyielding Spirit**
A pivotal moment in lunar history transpired on September 7, 2019, when India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander, christened Vikram, lost contact during its descent toward a designated landing site near the moon’s southern extremity. Despite the subsequent aerial reconnaissance conducted by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Vikram’s whereabouts remained elusive, thus limiting the potential for its recovery and analysis.
Months later, a vigilant Indian space enthusiast, scrutinizing a publicly accessible NASA image, made an astonishing discovery – a luminous speck amidst the lunar landscape. This celestial glint turned out to be fragments of Vikram, bearing witness to its impactful encounter with the lunar terrain.
**Prospects on the Lunar Horizon**
Anticipating the evolution of lunar exploration, Japan is primed to launch the SLIM mission this week, set to orbit the moon and embark on a landing venture near Shioli Crater. The global private sector has not lagged behind, as a constellation of enterprises vies to achieve the maiden private lunar landing. While Japan’s Ispace experienced a crash during its Hakuto-R Mission 1 spacecraft’s landing in April 2022, endeavors persist. Notably, Houston’s Intuitive Machines and Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology are poised to unleash lunar missions before the year’s conclusion.
Humanity’s next frontier beckons with renewed vigor as NASA unveils its astronauts for the Artemis II mission, potentially orbiting the moon by late 2024. As a parallel aspiration, both NASA and China’s space agency aspire to foster a new chapter in lunar history by deploying astronauts to the moon by 2030, an endeavor that would mark humanity’s return since Apollo 17’s iconic mission in 1972.