Soyuz launches like this one last month sustain the International Space Station. Now Russian space science is showing new strength.

Anil Ananthaswamy

A renaissance for Russian space science

MOSCOW—When Russia’s Mars-96 exploration mission broke apart after launch in November 1996, the loss cast a pall over Russian space science. “We were barely functioning. There was this feeling of uselessness in the air,” says Lev Zelenyi, director of the Institute of Space Research (IKI) here. Now, Russia is hoping to dispel that pall with its biggest slate of lunar and planetary missions since the early 1970s. But budget cuts are threatening to drag the nation’s space science revival back to Earth.

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In January, the Russian government approved a 10-year plan crafted by Russia’s space agency, RosCosmos, covering everything from contributions to the International Space Station to weather and navigation satellites and human space exploration. About 15% of the spending would go to “basic physics in space,” says Zelenyi, a plasma physicist. But the plan is considerably leaner than expected. With the government’s coffers squeezed by low oil prices, RosCosmos has had to slash its budget for the 10-year plan to 1.4 trillion rubles ($20.5 billion), down from the 3.4 trillion rubles the agency asked for a year ago.

Nonscience parts of the space program have borne the brunt of the cuts, but a bevy of science missions are also at risk, including the resurrection of Russia’s lunar program. Russia hasn’t been back to the moon since the space race with the United States a half-century ago. The Soviets scored early with the Luna-1 mission—the first unmanned probe to orbit the moon, in 1958—and Luna-2, which became the first spacecraft to land on the moon in 1959. “It was a really great time for our scientists, when we were competing with America,” Zelenyi says. But after U.S. astronauts won the race to the moon, the wildly expensive U.S. and Soviet programs both hit stiff headwinds. The last Soviet mission from that period was Luna-24 in 1976.

Russia’s renewed interest in the moon came after a Russian instrument hitched a ride in 2009 with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The instrument, a neutron detector, spotted pockets of subsurface water ice. Russia’s leadership had rekindled dreams of putting cosmonauts on the moon—and here was a potential source of water. IKI now has five lunar missions planned from 2018 to 2025, starting with Luna-25, a spacecraft that would land near the moon’s south pole. The European Space Agency (ESA) will take part in the first three missions. A highlight is a drill it’s designing for Luna-27, which would penetrate a meter into the regolith—the surface layer of dust and rock debris—to take samples. “We don’t know if the regolith is soft or hard. If it’s saturated with ice, it could be like drilling into concrete,” says James Carpenter, ESA’s lead scientist on Luna in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Some researchers are unimpressed with that science plan. “All that was done before—in the 1970s,” scoffs one Russian scientist. Carpenter disagrees. “The moon is not old hat,” he says. All lunar samples have come from a region that’s “not representative of the whole. If you want to understand all the science that has come before, you have to go to new places and take samples.” 

Humans won’t follow for a while. Russia’s budget woes will slow the human exploration program beyond the first mission’s stated target of 2025, Zelenyi says. But he denies rumors that Luna-25 will be delayed.

A. Cuadra/Science

Two other cornerstones of the Russian space revival are Mars and astrophysics. Phobos-Grunt, Russia’s next attempt to reach the Red Planet after Mars-96, brought back bad memories when it broke up after launch in 2011. Like Mars-96, it ended in a fiery crash in the Pacific Ocean—the subject of “jokes mixed with tears,” Zelenyi says. But Russia is teaming up with Europe on ExoMars, a twospacecraft mission. The first probe, designed to sniff for methane, was launched last month and is now en route to Mars, salving some of the sting of the earlier failures. And IKI and NASA are in early discussions on a possible joint mission to Venus after 2025.

Funds permitting, Russian astrophysics is poised for revival as well. On deck is SPEKTR-RG, a pair of x-ray telescopes that would map x-ray sources such as black holes and neutron stars. First conceived 25 years ago, the long-delayed project, now a joint effort with Germany, was revised twice. It’s become even more important to astronomers worldwide after last week’s possible loss of Japan’s x-ray telescope. “We found a niche, and there will be new physics,” Zelenyi promises. Launch is slated for September 2017, but that may slip, he says.

After that will come Gamma-400, “one of most ambitious projects in the world in next 10 years,” declares Nikolai Kolachevsky, director of the P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute (LPI) here. LPI is taking the lead on the gamma-ray telescope, slated for launch in 2022. Gamma-400 aims to probe the nature of dark matter and the origins of extragalactic cosmic rays, and will search for high-energy gamma-ray bursts. Along with technical hurdles and budget worries, the mission faces the impact of international sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Crimea. Components that also have military uses, such as equipment for protecting the spacecraft from radiation, now are difficult to procure, Kolachevsky says.

Budget realities may yet force some missions onto the back burner. But for the first time since the Soviet breakup, Zelenyi says, Russian space scientists can look ahead with confidence. “Even though scientists want to have much more than the country can afford,” he says, “the next decade will be quite busy for us.”