In Russia's first moon mission in nearly 50 years, its Soyuz 2.1v rocket, carrying the Luna-25 lunar landing craft, blasted off from the Vostochny spaceport on Friday.
The Luna-25 is racing to land on the south pole of the moon, a region believed to hold coveted pockets of water ice, ahead of India's Chandrayaan-3.
Russia's space agency Roscosmos confirmed that the rocket carrying the lander blasted off at 2:11 a.m. on Friday Moscow time, with its upper stage boosting the lander out of Earth's orbit toward the moon over an hour later.
The Russian lander is expected to reach the moon on August 21, Russia's space chief Yuri Borisov clarified on Friday, though initially it was expected to touch down n the lunar surface on August 23. Luna-25 will take about 5.5 days to travel to the moon's vicinity, then spend three to seven days orbiting at about 100 kilometres before heading for the surface, said reports. Chandrayaan-3 is due to run experiments for two weeks.
"Now we will wait for the 21st. I hope that a highly precise soft landing on the moon will happen," Borisov told workers at the Vostochny cosmodrome after the launch, according to Interfax.
Only three governments have managed successful moon landings: the Soviet Union, the United States and China. India and Russia are aiming to be the first to land at the moon's south pole.
Luna-25 is roughly the size of a small car and would work on the moon for at least an Earth year. However, landing on the terrain could be difficult and India's attempt to land at the south pole in 2019 failed. "From the point of view of science, the most important task, to put it simply, is to land where no one else has landed," said Maxim Litvak, head of the planning group for the Luna-25 scientific equipment, told Reuters.
"There are signs of ice in the soil of the Luna-25 landing area; this can be seen from the data from orbit," he said. Luna-25 will reportedly use a scoop to take rock samples from a depth of up to 15 cm (6 inches) to test for the presence of frozen water.
Interestingly, this comes amid sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine. The sanction had made it harder for it to access Western technology, impacting its space programme. "Russia's aspirations towards the moon are mixed up in a lot of different things. I think first and foremost, it's an expression of national power on the global stage," Asif Siddiqi, professor of history at Fordham University, told Reuters.