Several nations, and a few audacious private companies, are now vying for a place on the Moon.
But not just any region of the lunar surface: the prized South Pole. The discovery of water ice in the shadowed craters of this area makes it a prime candidate for permanent human presence. Yet, the very attributes that make this zone so appealing also render it challenging for landings, with its mountainous regions and uneven terrain.
On August 23, 2023, India's Chandrayaan-3 mission defied these challenges and successfully landed near the lunar south pole, becoming the first such spacecraft to do so. With this accomplishment, India joins an elite club of lunar landing veterans: the United States, Soviet-era Russia, and China.
The genesis of India’s lunar exploration program, Chandrayaan, traces back to 1999 when the Indian Academy of Sciences first proposed the concept of a scientific lunar mission. Bolstered by support from the Astronautical Society of India and backed by government funding, ISRO launched its inaugural mission to the Moon in October 2008, Chandrayaan-1. Its primary mission was to meticulously survey the lunar landscape, and map its topography and chemical makeup, with a keen interest in the south pole. A year into the mission, NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument aboard the orbiter confirmed the existence of water ice in the permanently shadowed regions by producing the first high-resolution map of minerals.
The country’s growing space ambitions gave rise to the Chandrayaan-2 mission, initially envisaged as a collaborative venture between India and Russia where ISRO would develop an orbiter and a rover while Roscosmos would provide a lunar lander. However, persistent delays on the Russian front, exacerbated by the Phobos-Grunt mission failure on Mars, nudged India toward domestic development of the lunar lander.
Despite setbacks and increasing costs, Chandrayaan-2 was successfully launched in August 2019. The mission consisted of an orbiter, a lander named Vikram, and a rover dubbed Pragyan. The mission progressed without a hitch as it entered lunar orbit and deployed the orbiter, aided by Earth’s gravity assist. However, during Vikram’s powered descent down to the surface, it deviated from its intended trajectory due to a software glitch and crash-landed on the Moon.
Nevertheless, the lessons learned from Chandrayaan-2 laid the foundation for Chandrayaan-3's resounding success, establishing India's role as a formidable player in lunar exploration.
Approximately a month after Chandrayaan-3 launched from India, Russia launched their Luna 25 lander onboard the Soyuz-2.1b rocket from Vostochny Cosmodrome in east Russia. Weighing less than half of Chandrayaan-3, Luna-25 was able to directly reach the Moon via the trans-lunar injection maneuver and hence was slated for a landing before its Indian counterpart on August 21. However, on August 19, Roscosmos suffered an anomaly with the lander during a maneuver to move it into a pre-landing orbit. Luna-25’s primary propulsion system worked for 127 seconds, instead of the planned 84, according to the head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, entering into an unstable orbit and crashing on the lunar surface.
Luna-25 was Russia's first attempt at landing on the Moon since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The lander was renamed Luna to emphasize continuity with the Luna Programme, originally set in motion by the communist state in response to NASA and President Kennedy’s pledge for crewed lunar missions.
During its 18 years of operation, the program launched various impactors, orbiters, rovers, and sample return missions and accomplished a lot of firsts in lunar exploration. In 1966, Luna 9 became the first lander to successfully land on the surface of another planetary body. Months later, Luna 10 became the first artificial satellite of the Moon, having been successfully inserted into lunar orbit. As the program picked up momentum, Luna 17 and Luna 21 carried the first robotic wheeled vehicles — named Lunokhod — to explore the lunar surface. More complex lunar landers were launched which returned lunar regolith back to Earth. In 1976, the Soviet Union launched its last mission to the Moon, ending the Luna program as the country shifted its focus to long-duration human presence in low earth orbit.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that nascent plans were drawn for a new lunar lander. Throughout the early 2000s, several additional efforts were made, including a collaboration with Japan on a now-canceled Lunar-A mission, and with India on the Chandrayaan program.
The failure of Phobos-Grunt to touchdown on Mars necessitated a comprehensive overhaul of the lunar lander, giving rise to a modernized design, once known as Luna-Glob. While initial blueprints included both an orbiter and a lander, the Luna 25 mission was ultimately distilled to a lander-focused endeavor, aimed predominantly at showcasing its landing capabilities. Following the setback with Luna 25, Roscosmos convened a commission to thoroughly investigate the mishap. Borisov had confirmed that upcoming lunar explorations would feature an orbiter, designated Luna 26, and a lander, Luna 27, slated for a 2027 and 2028 launch, respectively, however, it remains to be seen how much these timelines will shift.
While India’s Chandrayaan program was in initial stages and Russia was struggling to revive past glories, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) set up the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The goal was clear: initiate robotic Moon missions, gradually transitioning to lunar human spaceflight. The inception of CLEP marked an era of achievements, with China launching its inaugural lunar orbiters, Chang’e 1 in 2007 and its successor, Chang’e 2 in 2010, both of which orbited the Moon successfully.
Three years later, China became the 3rd nation to ever soft land on the surface of the Moon with their Chang’e 3 lander. This achievement was historic; the world hadn't seen a soft lunar landing since the days of NASA’s Apollo and the Soviet Union's Luna Program in the 70s. The Chang’e 3 mission was further celebrated when its lander deployed the Yutu rover, powered by solar panels and radioisotope heater units (RHUs) to keep it warm during the lunar night. Due to higher-than-expected rigorous lunar conditions, the rover experienced a series of issues. The heat from the RHU did allow it to survive the lunar night, but the rover was immobile within 42 days of deployment. Designed to last for 3 months, Yutu operated for 963 days before mission control lost communications on August 3, 2016.
China returned to the Moon again in early 2019, securing another first as Chang’e 4 landed on the far side of the Moon. Initially conceptualized as a backup to Chang’e 3, the lander was reconfigured for the next mission upon its success. Chang’e 4 deployed the Yutu-2 rover which sported an improved design, incorporating the learnings from the previous mission. Powered by solar panels and heated by RHUs, the rover broke the lunar longevity record of 321 days, dethroning the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 1.
Having twice proven its prowess in lunar landing technology, China pivoted its focus to lunar sample return missions. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Chang’e 5 landed at Mons Rümker, a volcanic formation located north of Oceanus Procellarum at the northwest part of the Moon’s near side. After touchdown, the lander’s onboard drilling and scooping mechanisms secured lunar samples, which were then housed in a specialized container aboard the Ascender. After touchdown, advanced drilling and scooping mechanisms secured lunar samples, which were then housed in a specialized container aboard the Ascender. This module was designed to propel samples from the lunar surface to an awaiting orbiter. After the transfer, the orbiter returned to Earth.
Encapsulated regolith was transferred to a reentry module which performed a skip re-entry as the capsule momentarily ricocheted off the Earth’s atmosphere before eventual landing in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region of China.
Following these successes, China’s next mission aims to be the first to return samples from the far side of the Moon. It is scheduled for launch in 2024 and is designated to land at the southern edge of the Apollo Basin impact crater located in the southern hemisphere of the Moon's far side.
The United States’ return to the Moon is in full swing with NASA’s Artemis program. Capitalizing on momentum from the successful Commercial Crew program, NASA has now engaged private entities to send small robotic landers and rovers to the lunar surface. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract enables full autonomy to private companies to develop and launch their lunar landers while providing NASA and other commercial entities access to the lunar surface for a fixed-low cost.
One such frontrunner is a Houston-based company, Intuitive Machines. The company is on the cusp of launching its Nova-C lander to the Moon onboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 by the end of the year as a part of a $77 million CLPS contract. The mission, dubbed IM-1, will target the Malapert A lunar crater, located near the Shackleton crater at the lunar south pole, and will deliver five NASA-centric and six commercial payloads. Based on technology inherited from NASA’s Project Morpheus, Nova-C is powered by a liquid methane-based propulsion system and utilizes off-the-shelf components for a lower build cost.
Using liquid methane adds further complexities to the mission, as the lander will need to be fueled during launch, and since Falcon 9 operates on aerospace-grade Kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen, SpaceX will have to make special arrangements to fuel methane to the lander. However, once operational, Nova-C will be able to land over 100 kilograms of payload at the surface. Looking ahead, Intuitive Machines has already scheduled the second and the third mission for the Nova-C, both tentatively scheduled for an early 2024 flight onboard Falcon 9 and subject to change depending on the first mission’s outcome.
The IM-2 mission will see the Nova-C lander land near the lunar south pole and deliver NASA’s Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) along with numerous commercial payloads. PRIME-1 will be the first attempt at harvesting ice from below the lunar surface using a mass spectrometer, demonstrating the feasibility of resource utilization.
The IM-3 mission will deliver various scientific payloads to Reiner Gamma, a lunar swirl located on the western edge of the Moon and is one of the most visible swirls from Earth. This unique landing site will help researchers learn more about this region and its radiation levels.
Another company eyeing to successfully land the first privately developed lander on the Moon is Astrobotic. Based in Pittsburgh, the company has purchased a ride on the inaugural flight of ULA’s Vulcan rocket to launch their Peregrine lander. The launch has been consistently pushed back due to delays in Vulcan’s development and the lander’s technical readiness.
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Designed in collaboration with Airbus Defense and Space, the Peregrine lander stands 1.9 meters tall and 2.5 meters wide and can land up to 265 kilograms (584 lbs) of payload on the surface of the Moon. Its propulsion system is powered by hypergolic bi-propellants, negating the intricacies of mid-launch fueling.
The first mission, dubbed “Mission One'', will transport 28 payloads, with NASA sponsoring more than half through the CLPS contract. Peregrine is scheduled to land on Gruithuisen Gamma, located north of crater Gruithuisen at the western edge of Mare Imbrium.
This mission, regardless of the outcome, will provide invaluable data for the development of Astrobotic’s larger lander, named Griffin. Under the CLPS contract, Griffin will land NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), designed specifically to map the distribution and concentration of water ice on the lunar south pole. The launch timeline is highly subject to change but is currently scheduled for November 2024 onboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines won’t be the first private companies to attempt landing on the Moon. Israeli organization SpaceIL launched a privately developed lunar lander named Beresheet onboard the Falcon 9 in 2019 in partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The lander was originally developed as a part of Google’s Lunar X Prize contest and while the contest ended without a winner, SpaceIL’s initiatives were partially supported by X Prize and the Israeli government which allowed them to continue working on the mission.
Beresheet was on track to land north of Mare Serenitatis, located east of Mare Imbrium. However, complications arose when one of its gyroscopes malfunctioned during the landing sequence. Further complications ensued as a communication dropout with mission control prevented an immediate manual reset. By the time communications were reestablished, Beresheet had lost too much altitude to enable a soft landing. Ultimately, it crashed on the Moon's surface, reaching a final speed of 500 kilometers per hour (310 miles per hour) before impact. It was later revealed that Tardigrades were aboard the Beresheet spacecraft and may have survived their journey to the Moon.
Following the failure of the original Beresheet mission, SpaceIL decided to pursue a second attempt with Beresheet 2, slated for launch in 2024. Initially intended as a singular mission, this follow-up not only aims for lunar landing success but also fosters increased international collaboration with the United Arab Emirates.
Another previous attempt came from the Japanese company iSpace which attempted to land their Hakuto-R lander at the Atlas crater, located southeast of Mare Frigoris. Hakuto-R was also conceived as part of the Lunar X Prize. The mission was launched in December 2022 onboard the Falcon 9. During a five-month travel time, the lander traveled further than any privately funded spacecraft at over 1,400,000 kilometers (870,000 miles).
During the final moments of the powered descent, mission control lost communication with the lander. Further analysis by the team determined that a software issue caused the lander to incorrectly assume its altimeter data was faulty. The lander misjudged its actual altitude and kept hovering 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) above the surface before running out of propellant and plummeting uncontrollably down to the surface.
Despite the unsuccessful attempt, Hakuto-R became the first Japanese lander to attempt a lunar landing. The country’s subsequent attempt is imminent, with Japanese space agency — Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – gearing up for its Smart Landing for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission, scheduled for a September launch onboard Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H-IIA launch vehicle from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.
Once in orbit, the lander will coast for 3-4 months before arriving at the lunar orbit and attempting to land at a small lunar impact crater named Shioli, located within the crater Cyrillus, northwest of Mare Nectaris.
SLIM features a unique feature-matching algorithm specifically developed to precisely land on the lunar surface, with an accuracy range of 100 meters (330 ft). If the spacecraft nails a soft landing on the surface, it’ll not only demonstrate its precision landing capabilities but also make Japan the fifth nation to land on the Moon. The mission’s success will pave the way for the country's next lunar mission, Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX), in collaboration with India.
Scheduled for 2026, ISRO and JAXA will launch an uncrewed lander and rover to further explore the lunar south pole. India will provide the lander while Japan will develop the rover and launch the mission onboard the H3 launch vehicle. LUPEX’s mission characteristics call for a precision landing which the lander will execute based on the very feature matching algorithm SLIM used.
Once on the surface, the rover will use its onboard drill to collect sub-surface samples of ice water which will be analyzed by a suite of instruments to accurately map the prized water available in the region.
The race back to the moon is heating up.
And while India may have just taken the lead, it will be tough for any program to hold pole position against all this competition.