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Russia heads for the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years

Russia hasn’t sent any spacecraft to the moon since 1976, but that streak ended Friday morning with the liftoff of a Soyuz 2.1v rocket that’s hoping to land on the moon’s south pole.

The flight is a move meant to bring the country back into the modern space race, as the United States gears up for a manned lunar mission in either 2025 or 2026. India and China are also racing to the moon, with India launching a lunar lander last month.

The south pole of the moon is the target for all of the various nations. The U.S.’ Artemis 3 mission will land on the lunar South Pole, with the assistance of SpaceX’s Starship, returning humans to the surface. (The moon, of course, isn’t the final destination. NASA hopes, long-term, to learn the best ways to live, work and survive in hostile outer space conditions. That will make crewed missions to Mars feasible by the mid-2030s.)

Assuming Russia’s craft successfully makes it to its destination, it will be the first to make a soft landing on the moon’s south pole. It’s expected to do so on Aug. 21. That would be two days earlier than the scheduled landing of India’s Chandrayaan-3, which is already orbiting the moon.

Once there, the lander, dubbed Luna-25, will operate on the surface for roughly a year, looking for water-based ice under the planet’s surface. Discovery of that could be a significant breakthrough for future lunar exploration, potentially providing missions with fuel and life support by extracting hydrogen elements.

The head of Russia’s space program said at least three other lunar missions are planned over the next seven years. Following that, the country could work with China on a possible manned mission to the surface.

There are scientific goals, of course, but the launch is also a public relations exercise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hopes to restore Russia’s image as a superpower, following the criticisms and setbacks it has seen as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.

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