For the first time in nearly half a century, Russia has launched a spacecraft that is headed to the moon.
On Friday morning at a spaceport in the far eastern part of Russia, a rocket lifted Luna-25, a robotic lander of moderate size, to Earth orbit. It will try to land in the moon’s south polar region, where the presence of water ice has attracted the attention of numerous space programs, and make a year’s worth of scientific observations.
The mission has been in development for years before Russia invaded Ukraine, but it is also occurring at a moment when President Vladimir V. Putin is looking to space as one way to signal Russia’s return to great-power status.
The Soyuz rocket began its flight under cloudy skies at the Vostochny launchpad. About 80 minutes after the launch, the Luna-25 spacecraft was pushed on a course to the moon according to an update from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. It is to reach the moon and enter orbit on Aug. 16, and then attempt to land on the surface as early as Aug. 21.
In recent years under Mr. Putin’s rule, the Soviet era has been venerated as the apex of Russian power while the crimes and injustices of Communist rule have been papered over. Soviet achievements in space are key parts of the narrative taught in schools and on state television
The invasion of Ukraine has only amplified the weight of Mr. Putin’s quest to remake Russia. With Western sanctions and the war starving the country of foreign capital and technology, the moon launch is emerging as a marquee test of the country’s ability to chart a new path. For future missions, Russia is looking to develop electronics components that it would have bought from foreign companies.
It’s a test that will be keenly watched around the world as Europe and America work to isolate Russia amid the war in Ukraine, and as Russia tries to strengthen its political and economic ties with non-Western countries in response. Mr. Putin sees Russia’s space program as one prong of that effort. When he hosted African leaders for a summit meeting in St. Petersburg last month, he promised to expand Russia’s cooperation with African countries “in the field of space technologies and their applications.”
But space is also a domestic priority. In May, Mr. Putin instituted a new government award for achievements in space. In June, he awarded it to Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space in 1963, and who is now a member of Russian Parliament and staunchly loyal to Mr. Putin.
Telegraphing his avid attention to the Luna-25 launch, Mr. Putin met with Yuri Borisov, the head of Russia’s space program, on June 30. Mr. Borisov warned Mr. Putin that the typical chance of success of such a mission was about 70 percent, according to the Kremlin’s transcript of their meeting.
“Such missions are always risky,” Mr. Borisov told the president. “We would like, of course, for it to be successful.”
Whatever the prospects of Luna-25, the mission is a sign of how far the Russian space program has fallen since its glory days in the 1950s and ’60s when it launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, and then raced with NASA to send astronauts to the moon.
Even the probe’s name evokes the Soviet Union’s space-age heyday. Moscow’s previous lunar probe, launched in 1976, was called the Luna-24.
“The architecture of the lander is very similar to what the Soviet Union used to build for landing on the moon in the ’70s,” said Anatoly Zak, who publishes RussianSpaceWeb.com, a close tracker of Russia’s space activities.
“However, it’s a scaled-down version” that takes advantage of modern technological advances, Mr. Zak said. “When they decided to call it Luna-25, it’s kind of fair, because, in fact, it’s a continuation of the Soviet legacy.”
Coming out of the moon race, the Soviet space program continued to unlock achievements in planetary exploration. As recently as the mid-1980s, its Vega 1 and Vega 2 missions put landers on Venus and flew past Halley’s comet for observations.
The chaos of the Soviet Union’s fall began a lasting period of fallow times for Russian planetary science. In 2011, an ambitious mission to collect dirt and rocks from a Martian moon tumbled back into Earth’s atmosphere after launch and burned up. A post-mortem report by the Russian space agency blamed cost-cutting shortcuts and inadequate testing.
Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft still reliably ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. But the country’s space program has lost much of its once-lucrative business of launching commercial satellites.
During a news conference on Tuesday, Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, prematurely congratulated Russia for a successful Luna-25 launch. “We wish them well,” he said.
He also largely dismissed what Russia is likely to achieve in the coming years. “I don’t think that a lot of people at this point would say that Russia is actually ready to be landing cosmonauts on the moon in the time frame that we’re talking about,” Mr. Nelson said. “I think the space race is really between us and China.”
While the moon race of the 1960s captured the imagination of people around the world, Luna-25 is involved in a much more muted race — it might beat an Indian spacecraft that took a slower, more energy-efficient route to the moon after launching last month.
And Luna-25, lifting off after 2 a.m. local time in Moscow, has not so far gathered rapt attention in Russia.
“The Russian government is looking for any ‘victories’ to show how much they don’t care about sanctions,” said Denis Shiryaev, a Russian blogger who writes about technology. He added, “The news is most likely released for that, not for the actual launch.”
Once at the moon on Aug. 16, the Luna-25 lander will enter into a circular orbit 60 miles above the surface. The lander will spend several days nudging into an elliptical orbit that dips within a dozen miles of the surface. Then as soon as Aug. 21, it will attempt to land.
Luna-25’s main goal is to test the technologies, setting the groundwork for future lunar missions. “This is the test bed that will probably enable us to move forward in the moon research program,” said Natan Eismont, head scientist of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
If Luna-25 lands successfully, it is to operate for at least a year. Its primary landing target is north of Boguslawsky crater, located at a latitude of about 70 degrees south. Planned experiments include scooping up soil and analyzing what it is made of. The lander could dig up some water ice below the surface.
“For the first time this will be the moon soil from the vicinity of the pole, the south pole,” Dr. Eismont said.
“Samples have been taken from equatorial areas,” he said, referring to rock and soil samples brought back by Apollo astronauts, earlier Soviet robotic missions and, most recently, China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft. “They have been studied, and some conclusions have been made. This, however, doesn’t mean that polar samples will be the same.”
Landers from several countries have sent robotic spacecraft to the moon in recent years. Only China has succeeded, going three for three. The other landing attempts all crashed, including an effort by the Japanese company Ispace in April. A Japanese government mission is to be the next robotic launch, and two American companies could follow later this year.
Luna-25 is planned to be the first in a series of increasingly ambitious robotic missions headed to the moon. Luna-26 is expected to be an orbiter, while Luna-27 is to be a bigger, more capable lander. After a low point following the failure of Russia’s Martian moon mission, planetary science research is now on the upswing in Russia, Dr. Eismont said.
“We have young people, and new ideas arrived with them,” he said.
Alina Lobzina and Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.