The uncrewed spacecraft, known as Luna-25, took off from the country’s southeast at 2:11 a.m. local time, according to Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.
It will take just over five days for the vessel to travel to the moon’s vicinity, Roscosmos said. Then it will spend several days orbiting before attempting the soft landing on the lunar surface, north of the Boguslawsky crater, on Aug. 21, the agency said.
The timetable pits Russia in a race against India, which launched a similar mission — the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander — last month and is aiming to soft-land by Aug. 23. “We hope to be first,” Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov reportedly said at the launch.
The move thrusts Moscow into the rare and coveted geopolitical space of advanced lunar exploration, as it aims to join the United States and China in this expression of global power. (Attempts by Japan and Israel have failed in recent years.)
The moonshot, which Russia has been planning for decades, comes at a time when the Kremlin is facing international economic sanctions and a pariah status among much of the Western world for its invasion of Ukraine. Russia remains a key partner in the International Space Station, a large spacecraft in orbit around Earth that serves as a home for crews of astronauts from several nations. However, its aerospace sector has been hit by sanctions and limits on the use of Western-made technology, funding and research ties.
“Study of the moon is not the goal,” Vitaly Egorov, a popular Russian space analyst and blogger, told the Associated Press about the launch. “The goal is political competition between two superpowers — China and the USA — and a number of other countries which also want to claim the title of space superpower.”
In 1957, Russia became the first nation to launch a satellite into space with Sputnik 1, setting off a space race with the United States. By 1961, the Soviet Union had sent the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin, aboard the Vostok 1, making a single orbit around Earth. But as geopolitical tensions grew, it was the United States that became the first nation to put a human on the moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in 1969. This was hailed as a decisive victory in the space race between the two superpowers that was an outgrowth of the Cold War, and the televised landing was watched by 723 million people globally.
Borisov, the director general of Roscosmos, hailed Friday’s launch as a “new page” for Russian space exploration. “All the results of the research will be transferred to Earth,” he said on state television. “We are interested in the presence of water, as well as many other experiments related to the study of the soil, the site.” He noted that the mission is bound to face some “obstacles” along the way.
The Luna-25 lander has a four-legged base containing the landing rockets and propellant tanks, as well as an upper compartment holding solar panels, communications equipment, onboard computers and most of the scientific apparatus, according to NASA.
Its dry mass is about 800 kilograms (around 1,760 pounds) — roughly the same as a car trailer — and has a 1.6-meter-long (around 5-foot-3-inches) lunar robotic arm equipped with a scoop to remove and collect rocks, soil and dust as it aims to “study composition” of the south pole. If successful, the lander is expected to operate on the lunar surface for one year, Roscosmos said.
On Friday, Roscosmos said in a Telegram post, “the rocket worked normally, the upper stage separated from the third stage and is now putting the automatic station on a flight trajectory to the Moon!”
It added that the launch came after “long preparations” and “agonizing expectation.”
The Indian Space Research Organization tweeted “Congratulations” to Roscosmos overnight, commending the successful Luna-25 launch. “Wonderful to have another meeting point in our space journeys,” it said.
This year, China also announced its plans to land astronauts on the moon before 2030, setting up a new sphere of rivalry with the United States. Borisov, Russia’s space chief, said Friday that the country plans three more lunar launches for 2027 through 2030.
“After that, we and our colleagues from China will move on to the next phase — the possibility of manned flights to the moon and the construction of a lunar base,” he added.
NASA has spoken of its own ambitions to build a sustainable presence focusing on the lunar south pole. Last month, it awarded contracts to companies to develop the technologies that would allow humans to live for extended periods on the moon.
But Americans may not be so keen. In July, a Pew Research poll found that only 12 percent of adults in the United States think returning astronauts to the moon should be NASA’s top priority. Instead, many said the space body should focus on monitoring climate change and watching for asteroids that could hit Earth.
Many nations are interested in the search for frozen water, especially in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon’s south pole. Water not only is important to sustain life, but when broken into its components — hydrogen and oxygen — it also could be used to make air to breathe and elements for rocket fuel, among other commercial endeavors.
Christian Davenport contributed to this report.