The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) is planning to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the Moon in 2015, a first step toward the ambitious long-term plan to establish a robotic base on the surface of our largest satellite. The spacecraft, called Luna-Glob ("Moon globe"), will be followed by two more orbiters and two rovers that will study the lunar soil locally and collect samples of rocks and dust, bringing them back to Earth for analysis.

The Luna-Glob spacecraft will lift off from Vostochny, in Far Eastern Russia, and carry a scientific payload of 120 kilograms (260 pounds) to measure dust and cosmic rays as well as conduct astrophysics experiments.

After enough data has been gathered, the next step will be to launch a joint orbiter-rover mission featuring a 58 kg (90 lbs) rover that will land at the Moon's south pole, examine a crater and scout the area for up to a year, running on solar panels.

Next, another orbiter with annexed lander will be launched. The lander is set to carry a large, 400 kg (850 lbs) rover that will be able to investigate the soil locally. A second lander will then shuttle about one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of soil and rock samples back to Earth.

Finally, by 2037, the Russians expect to build a robotic lunar base that would include a solar power station, a long-range research rover, and a dedicated orbiting satellite.

The Russian space program has seen a number of setbacks in recent years. In November 2011, the Phobos-Grunt probe, designed to bring back rock and soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos, failed to leave Earth's orbit and ended up crashing into the Pacific Ocean. And last December, the launch of a telecom satellite was botched as the fuel supply of the rocket carrying it unexpectedly and suddenly depleted in mid air.

Russia has been set on building a permanent lunar base since the late 1990s. The Luna-Glob spacecraft was planned for completion last year, but the project was delayed because of financial difficulties. In light of recent developments, however, the program appears to be back on track.

Despite the recent setbacks, in fact, the country has recently committed to substantially increasing its investments in space exploration. Last month, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev approved a plan to double the output of the Russian space industry by 2020, allocating a budget of US$70 billion for the period 2013-2020. For reference, the ongoing Curiosity mission, scheduled to last a minimum of 23 months, has total costs approaching $2.5 billion.

Sources: Ria Novosti, ESA (pdf), Kharkiv National University (pdf)