Russia on the Moon: If ifs and ans were pots and pans

4 weeks ago
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One does not want to think much about worldliness on New Year’s Eve. The Year of the Rat is going away under the banner of the struggle against the coronavirus infection, and this is a highly worldly matter. Russia has launched the Sputnik V vaccine, which has every chance of triumphantly defeat the disease on the entire planet. Does Russia have any chances to extend its influence beyond planet Earth?

The Soviet Union used to be the leader in space exploration. Unfortunately, today’s Russia cannot boast of the same. At the same time, NASA has taken a long way ahead with the help of public and private partnership. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has pushed many players on the market with the help of Falcon launch vehicles and Dragon cargo ships.

The flight of the manned spacecraft Crew Dragon to the ISS became an unprecedented challenge to Roscosmos in 2020.

For comparison, the design of the new Russian spaceship “Oryol” (“Eagle”) started back in 2009, and there is still no light at the end of the tunnel. It is expected, though, that the test launch of the Oryol spaceship on the Angara-A5 carrier rocket from the Vostochny cosmodrome is to take place in late 2023. If successful, the first unmanned flight to the ISS will take place next year, and a manned one – in 2025.

The Angara is a whole family of space rockets: from the light Angara-1.1 version to the super-heavy Angara-A5B. Their development began in the 1990s to replace the Soviet Protons. The advantage of the Angara rocket lies in the use of less toxic fuel (kerosene and liquefied oxygen). The new rocket also boasts adjustable carrying capacity as universal rocket modules can be added to its design.

Can we consider the recent successful launch (the second one after a long break) of the Angara-A5 heavy rocket from the Plesetsk cosmodrome a worthy response to Elon Musk and NASA? It can hardly be called a breakthrough, but, nevertheless, this is another step towards the intended goal.

Artemis eyes the Moon

Russia will be able to claim leadership positions in the field of civil space exploration if the country switches to the new rocket and space technology of the Angara rocket family in the coming years. In addition, Russia also needs to develop a new manned spacecraft, the head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin believes.

Four years ago, while serving as Deputy Prime Minister, he announced an ambitious and interesting goal – the creation of a permanent Russian scientific station on the Moon until 2030. According to Rogozin, this would open up “great technological opportunities in space” for Russia.

To achieve it, one needs to do the following:

  • to make a technological breakthrough;
  • build a super-heavy rocket;
  • build an orbital module in lunar orbit;
  • build a reusable descent vehicle, etc.

However, it appears that the United States is much closer to the designated goal with its Artemis program.

A NASA project with the participation of US private companies, the European Space Agency, the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan and other countries envisages a manned mission to the Moon in 2024, the construction of Gateway lunar station and the creation of the lunar infrastructure.

  • NASA reported last summer that the Orion reusable spacecraft for the Artemis-1 mission was ready.
  • In September 2019, NASA concluded a contract with Lockheed Martin to build a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 Orion spacecraft.
  • Boeing Corporation is completing the work on the construction of the Space Launch System super-heavy launch vehicle.
  • The development of lunar landers was entrusted to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX.

According to NASA chief Jim Bridenstine, the successful implementation of the lunar program should be the forerunner of the planned manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. It is no coincidence that Elon Musk’s company works on a fantastic project – a giant reusable Starship spacecraft with a carrying capacity of 100 tons for flights to Mars. It will be launched into space by the largest-ever launch vehicle Super Heavy (a reusable one too), equipped with 28 Raptor methane-powered engines. With Elon Musk’s stubbornness in mind, such incredible plans do not seem to be empty words.

China is also making its significant contribution to space exploration. Not that long ago, the whole world learned about the triumph of Chinese specialists, when the Chang’e-5 probe successfully landed on the moon, collected soil samples and delivered about two kilograms of regolith back to Earth.

It was only the Soviet Luna-24 probe that could succeed in such a mission back in 1976. The implementation of the Chang’e program is to take China to the stage of the manned flight to the Moon no later than in 2036.

Russia in the lunar race: Flying in space at snail’s pace

Russian politicians were rather skeptical about the USA’s plans for the exploration of the moon. There are many critical remarks, but the main complaint is related to the great American habit of being always “at the head of the table.” Speaking about the Artemis program and NASA’s desire to involve Russia country in it, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov condemned “Washington’s departure from the principles of equal cooperation and attempts to impose secondary roles on potential partners.”

The head of Roscosmos also considered Russia’s participation in the Artemis program inappropriate, since this project in its current form aims to serve the interests of the American side in the first place.

“As you know, Artemis was a Greek goddess. We are now preparing Zeus amendments to this agreement,” Rogozin joked.

As the press service of the state corporation reported, Roscosmos is to resume the lunar program from next year. The implementation of the program is to take place in several stages until 2040.

  • By 2025, it is planned to build the basic module for the lunar station, test the Oryol manned spacecraft and explore the moon with the help of automated stations.
  • The second stage stipulates for first manned flights to the Moon and the installation of the first elements of the base.
  • In 2029, the Oryol spacecraft is to make a manned flight around the Moon.
  • The construction of the long-term lunar base is planned for the period from 2030 to 2035.

Experts believe that the carrying capacity of Angara launch vehicles will not be enough for manned missions to the Moon. That is why such super-heavy launch vehicles as Yenisei, Don and Leader are under development. Yet, these projects require trillions of rubles in financial investments. In addition, work is underway to create an oxygen and hydrogen-powered upper stage KBTK for the Angara rocket. Preliminary design of a reusable rocket on liquefied natural gas has begun, plus there are ideas for creating a reusable space nuclear-powered tug, etc.

The lunar program can be costly for the Russian budget. Is the game worth the candle? Russian  scientists are convinced that the answer to this question is positive. In particular, Lev Zeleny, scientific director of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, notes the presence of uranium, titanium, thorium and other rare metals on the Moon.

When the earth is depleted of its rare metals, without which the industry will suffocate, one will have to pay attention to the moon, the scientist believes.

In addition, the Moon is an ideal location for radio astronomy and other observations due to electromagnetic silence and absence of atmosphere.

The creation of the first extraterrestrial laboratory on the Moon to study lunar materials, meteorites and depths of the universe – all this sounds extremely tempting. And yet, as Dmitry Rogozin said, before exploring deep space we need to bring our own planet in order.

“We have a gigantic country that has not yet been properly explored, we still do not know how to use all the huge resources that we have, and if we do, then we often do it barbarically,” Rogozin said.

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