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Scroll over the icons for more information. Illustration by Adrian Mann.

Around Jupiter lurks Ganymede, one of the four Galilean moons and the largest natural satellite in the Solar System. In fact, with a diameter of about 5,270 kilometres (3,275 miles), it is larger even than the planet Mercury and has almost twice the mass of Earth’s Moon.

However, it is not the size of Ganymede that is of most interest. This giant moon, 640 million kilometres (400 million miles) from Earth, has an icy surface and might be hiding a saltwater ocean underground, while its atmosphere bears tantalising hints of oxygen and may even possess a thin ozone layer. For these reasons it has garnered a lot of interest for future exploration missions and one of those, Russia’s Ganymede Lander, could touch down on the surface in the next 20 years.

The Ganymede Lander would launch along with the European Space Agency’s Juipter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft in 2022, arriving at Jupiter around 2030 after using gravitational assists to reach the giant planet. The collaboration would allow JUICE to scour Ganymede for a suitable landing site for the lander, although a separate Russian orbiter might also join the launch to provide a back-up option to find a landing site.

The lander itself would be a stationary vehicle, touching down on a region of interest on Ganymede to perform scientific analysis. A large antenna on the top would communicate with Earth, while numerous instruments including cameras and spectrometers would analyse the surrounding area. The main focus of the mission would be astrobiology.

This would be the first such mission ever attempted in the Jovian system. So far spacecraft have landed on Venus, the Moon, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan; landing on Ganymede would mark the sixth body in the Solar System (including Earth) that humanity has left its mark upon.

The Ganymede Lander is still in a concept stage at the moment. Russia will spend up to $1 million (£650,000) on research and development for the spacecraft in 2014 to determine the feasibility of such a mission, with construction on the first prototypes to begin in 2017 if all goes to plan.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny


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Illustration by Adrian Mann

In the 1980s the Soviet Union designed and built a heavy-lift rocket known as Energia that was comparable to the Space Shuttle, and even the Saturn V, in its lifting capability of 100,000kg (220,000 pounds). It successfully launched the unmanned Soviet Buran shuttle, but was retired not long after.

Since then Russia has rarely delved into the world of super launches. Their biggest rocket currently in operation is the Proton, capable of taking 21,600kg (48,000 lbs) into orbit. That’s quite sizeable in the realm of modern rockets, but it doesn’t come close to the eventual power of NASA’s Space Launch System, which will fly for the first time in 2017.

So for the last few years the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has been drawing up ideas for a mega rocket called the Angara 7. It’s still in a concept stage, but Roscosmos is very much aware of a need for a heavy-lift launcher if they are to carry out their stated goals of taking humans to the Moon.

Rocket size comparison

The rocket currently being touted, which is illustrated above, would be capable of taking at least 35 tons into orbit, although it’s likely this would be upgraded to make a lunar mission possible. Russia has a strong history in the launcher industry with its Proton, Progress and Soyuz rockets being incredibly successful for the past few decades. The Angara 7 could be the rocket Roscosmos needs to begin manned exploration beyond Earth orbit.

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Exclusive illustration of Russia’s upcoming Angara 7 heavy-lift rocket

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