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Russia's latest attempt at Moon landing fails. India will try again this week

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Landing on the moon is proving quite a challenge for the world's space agencies. Russia attempted it over the weekend but failed. Its newest robotic probe plowed into the lunar surface. Meanwhile, India's space agency is making a second attempt. It crashed a lander in 2019. Joining us now to talk about why it's so hard to land on the moon and why these countries keep trying is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, so, OK, let's start with the Russian probe. What went wrong there?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: You know, we don't really know. The Luna 25 mission was the first to go back to the moon for Russia since the heyday of the Soviet Union. The Russians based the mission on an old but proven Soviet design. They spent literally decades planning and building it. And yet, just as it was preparing for a gentle touchdown there, they lost contact. Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, says they now believe Luna 25 crashed into the moon, but they didn't say much more than that. In losing Luna 25, though, they've joined this exclusive club of nations that have crashed into the moon recently, including Israel, Japan and, as you mentioned up there, India.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. We're going to get back to India in just a second. But first, Geoff, what makes this so difficult? I mean, wasn't the U.S. landing people there in 1969?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. Well, the key word there, A, is people.

MARTÍNEZ: Ah.

BRUMFIEL: Humans are good pilots. And it turns out robots, even with all their modern sensors and gadgets, just have a tough time sticking the landing. I spoke to Jason Davis at the nonprofit Planetary Society about this, and he said because there's no atmosphere on the moon, probes can't just gently float down on the parachute.

JASON DAVIS: You have to use your thrusters. And that means you're going to have a lot of sophisticated calculations as it comes in for a landing to fire these thrusters just right. There's not a lot of margin for error.

BRUMFIEL: And in fact, with India's last lunar mission, that's exactly what went wrong. The thrusters didn't perform as expected. The computer got confused, and it crashed.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So all that makes sense. All right. So India is going to try its second attempt at a moon landing on Wednesday. Tell us more about that mission.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. It's called Chandrayaan-3. It's a small solar-powered lander with a little rover on board. It's basically a carbon copy of the one that crashed. But this time, the Indian Space Research Organization thinks it can do better. And Davis says he thinks they've got a good shot 'cause they probably learned a lot from that last attempt.

DAVIS: If I had to guess, I would say that they'll probably succeed. But, you know, anything can happen in space flight.

BRUMFIEL: And this time they're trying to land quite close to the intended Russian landing site, which is near the lunar south pole.

MARTÍNEZ: South pole - the lunar south pole. Why the lunar south pole? Is there a reason for that?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. So some of the craters in the south pole are in permanent shadow, and that means there could be water ice down there. Brett Denevi at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory told me that water could be used for a lot more than drinking.

BRETT DENEVI: If you break it apart, you can make rocket fuel or breathable air for future astronauts on the surface.

BRUMFIEL: So China's also planning a mission to the pole, and the U.S. wants to send humans there as part of its Artemis program. The south pole is seen as the place for future exploration on the moon, assuming one of these agencies can actually manage to land there.

MARTÍNEZ: I will volunteer if they want to send a radio host. That's NPR science...

BRUMFIEL: That's brave of you.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks a lot.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUMBO GETS MAD'S "COSMIC BLOOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.