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Astra's Guide to Lunar Exploration

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Introduction

On July 20, 1969, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. left the safety of their lunar module named, "Eagle" and made the first human steps onto the surface of Earth’s satellite. Michael Collins remained in orbit in the command module spacecraft named, "Columbia." The first successful human flight and landing on the Moon is a moment that lives on in history. That moment over 50 years ago will endure through the ages as one of the greatest achievements of humankind. Today it is obvious that journey has never ended. Find out more about the Apollo lunar mission below or continue reading to discover the exciting new human race to Earth's sister, Luna!

Trail Blazing!

We are not kidding at Astra's when we say an exciting Moon race is underway.

At Bat! : China's Chang’e 6 lunar farside sample-return mission launched on May 3, 2024.

On Deck : Sharing the ride, NASA's Lunar Trailblazer, a small lunar orbiter that will search for water and Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME 1) a second lander built by Intuitive Machines will be launched on Falcon 9. Scheduled to launch in October 2024.

+ Learn more on this page about CAPSTONE and the Lunar Gateway

International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG)

logo of the ISECG

The International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) is an organization of space agencies established to advance human space exploration by coordinating world-wide efforts in space exploration. Current members include:

Australia - Brazil - Canada - China - European Space Agency - France - India - Italy - Japan - Luxembourg - Norway - Poland - Republic of Korea - Romania - Russia - Switzerland - Thailand - Ukraine - United Arab Emirates - United Kingdom - United States - Vietnam

This international organization is moving forward on plans to explore the Moon and begin utilization of lunar resources. Efforts in this area are intended to bring human space exploration forward and many believe that Mars is the first destination beyond the Earth-Moon system. ISECG members are working together to explore "cislunar space" meaning the space between the Earth and Moon including the orbit of the Moon.

Active Lunar Explorers

This section covers missions that are actively working on the task of exploration of the Moon. Completed missions, including the Chang'e 5 can be found in that section.

Chang’e-6

China National Space Agency (CNSA) launched the Chang’e-6 on a Long March 5 rocket May 3, 2024, from the Wenchang spaceport. Built by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the Chang'e-6 mission on the farside is expected to last 53 Earth days.

Prior to launching Chang’e-6, CSNA launched the Queqiao-2 mission that will also support other upcoming missions to the Moon. Queqiao-2 has a highly elliptical lunar orbit and a 4.2m dish antenna that allows it to relay communications from the unseen lunar farside. The spacecraft has proven its ability by contacting CNSA's Chang'e-4 mission still in progress on the farside on April 6, 2024.

Queqiao 2 has three science payloads. The Extreme Ultraviolet Camera (EUC), the Grid-based Energetic Neutral Atom imager (GENA), and a very long baseline interferometer called the Lunar Orbit VLBI EXperiment (LOVEX). Queqiao has also successfully deployed two experimental CubeSats, Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2, now in orbit of the Moon and testing navigation and communication technologies.

Queqiao-2 spacecraft orbiting the Moon
Queqiao-2 shown orbiting the Moon, posted on X by @China Science

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CNSA is planning for Chang’e-6 to bring back soil samples from the Moon's south pole. The returned samples will be used to study the Moon’s history, and for future use, such as rocket fuel or to supply lunar bases. Chang’e-6 was once a back up for the successful Chang’e-5 mission and is already prepared for the task. Expected launch for this mission is 2024.

Chang’e 6 is sending a lander to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken (SPA basin) to collect samples and place them in a lunar ascent vehicle. The plan is similar to the Chang’e-5 sample return mission. The ascent vehicle will be launched and meet up with a return vehicle in orbit. SPA basin is a massive impact crater that may be one of the oldest on the Moon.

The Chang’e 6 mission is also an international collaboration with four partners:

The National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), the French space agency, contributed the Detection of Outgassing Radon (DORN) instrument that will measure concentrations of radon on the Moon. DORN will detect alpha particles emitted by the decay of radon surrounding the lander.

Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics-Frascati built the INstrument for landing-Roving laser Retroreflector Investigations INRRI). This device reflects concentrated light, called a laser retroreflector. Light sent from Earth can be bounced off the reflector on the lunar surface to measure the distance between Earth and the Moon accurately.

The Swedish Institute for Space Physics developed the Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface instrument (NILS), to measure solar winds that are reflected by the lunar surface.

The Institute of Space Technology in Pakistan sent its ICUBE-Q CubeSat that is designed to detect traces of water-ice on the lunar surface.

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Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon (SLIM)

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's lunar lander mission will help develop the landing technology needed for future lunar exploration. It is a small scale mission to autonomously land exactly where it is intended. SLIM finds its location by processing images captured by its camera pointing toward the lunar surface. Using advanced image processing software that is accurate and efficient, it recognizes craters, and compares them with the map of the lunar surface in memory to pinpoint its own position. This mission is supported by Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS). the lander has been named, "Moon Sniper" because of its accuracy.

SLIM launched September 6, 2023, on JAXA's H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 47 (H-IIA F47) along with the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) an astronomical observatory working in the X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. SLIM made a soft landing on the Moon on January 19, 2024. Unfortunately, the vehicle landed in the wrong position and the solar panels that were to be pointing East to capture the rising Sun are pointed toward the West. Mission controllers powered down the lander in the hope that the the probe would awaken when the panels receive the rays of the Sun later in the lunar "day". On January 29, JAXA was able to communicate with the lander and it will carry out its mission as well as is possible while it is active.

SLIM revived for the third time on April 23, 2024, after the Moon's orbit took its landing site back into the Sun. The spacecraft is still sending images back to the earth. SLIM's Multi-Band Camera (MBC) has successfully completed a planned 10-band spectroscopy observation program and observed more targets than originally expected. JAXA obtained data from ten lunar rocks that have been given the names of dog breeds, such as Akitainu, Papillon and Shibainu.

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Rocks identified on the Moon with SLIM's multi-band camera
Rocks identified by SLIM's MBC imager. Credit: JAXA, Ritsumeikan University, University Of Aizu

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+ + Get the scoop on rocks found by SLIM straight from JAXA - - Successful imaging using the Multi-Band Camera

SLIM landed on the rim of Shioli crater in Mare Nectaris, 100 meters (330 feet) of its target site. The spacecraft's precision landing using an optical navigation system used maps that were programmed using data from JAXA’s SELENE orbiter. The landing was successful making Japan the fifth country to soft land on the Moon.

SLIM carried two small rovers, Lunar Excursion Vehicle 1 (LEV-1) is a lunar rover that is based on previously flown technology, it moves using a hopping mechanism; and Lunar Excursion Vehicle 2 (LEV-2) or SORA-Q , that flew on the Hakuto-R Mission 1 and is described on this page. The rovers were deployed and successfully navigated the lunar surface. JAXA has announced that one of the main engines suffered a failure, images revealed that one engine lost its nosecone.

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Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) - National Aeronautics and Space Administration

On June 18, 2009, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and the Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) missions to the moon were launched from Cape Kennedy. LRO reached lunar orbit and its exploration mission began on September 15, 2009. The orbiter's mission was slated to end after a year, but it is still operating today.

LRO and NASA capture the Earth over the lunar surface

Instruments carried by LRO include Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) that measures the radiation from the Sun and cosmic sources; Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment (DLRE) to measure lunar surface temperatures for future surface operations and exploration; Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) a spectrometer to map the lunar surface in the far ultraviolet region; Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND) to detect hydrogen in permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles that may indicate the presence of water ice; the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument studies lunar topography to make a 3d model of the lunar surface to identify the best locations for safe landing and surface exploration; Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) includes 2 narrow-angle cameras that make high-resolution, black-and-white images resolving details to 1 meter and a third wide-angle camera that takes color and ultraviolet images of the lunar surface; lastly Mini-RF uses radar to study permanently shadowed areas on the moon.

Astra's Lunar Exploration page features the image that was attained by the LRO spacecraft while it was studying the wispy lunar exosphere. The image was created using the LROC cameras, the narrow-angle cameras captured the lunar surface while the wide-angle camera captured a full-color image of my favorite planet. This image was featured on a NASA press release on December 18, 2015 that gives more details of how the image was created.

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Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO)

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute's Danuri established its lunar orbit in December 2022. The name Danuri is a combination of two Korean words, dal (moon) and nurida (enjoy). The name signifies South Korea's hope and desire for the success of their first Moon mission. Danuri orbits about 100 km above the surface of the moon in a polar orbit.

Danuri carries 5 instruments: Lunar Terrain Imager (LUTI), Wide-Angle Polarimetric Camera (PolCam), KPLO Magnetometer (KMAG), KPLO Gamma Ray Spectrometer (KGRS) and ShadowCam. ShadowCam was provided by NASA to search permanently shadowed regions on the moon for evidence of water ice deposits. ShadowCam is over 200 times more sensitive than previous lunar images so examining bright areas on the Moon will saturate the camera.

South Korea's Danuri spacecraft kplo
South Korea's Danuri spacecraft

Danuri is the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) first mission to the Moon. Successfully launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on August 4, 2021, the orbiter is a technology demonstration that will help South Korea gain experience in space exploration beyond low earth orbit. The orbiter is studying lunar resources such as water ice, uranium, helium-3, silicon, and aluminium. It will also help South Korea to select landing sites for future missions.

Danuri image showing phases of Earth from lunar orbit
Danuri Spacecraft Images of Earth Phases

- - A complete press kit with detailed information on KARI's Danuri probe is available on Arizona State University's ShadowCam site.

Chang'e 4

Launched on December 7, 2018, by the China National Space Agency (CNSA), Chang'e-4's lander, Jade Rabbit-2 and rover, Yutu-2 was operating on the Moon until August 2016. The solar-powered probe when dormant (~2 weeks) during the lunar night.

The lander's equipment includes cameras, a low frequency spectrometer, and a Lunar Micro Ecosystem - - a sealed biosphere cylinder with seeds and insect eggs to find out if plants and insects could hatch and grow together. Within a few hours after landing on January 3, 2019, the biosphere's temperature was adjusted to 24°C and the seeds were watered. Unfortunately, a large drop in temperature stopped the experiment after 9 days instead of the planned 100 days, but valuable information was obtained. Lunar rover's equipment includes a panoramic camera, on a mast that can rotate 360°, Lunar penetrating radar and a Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer.

Landing on the moon on January 3, 2019 the rover has far exceeded its 3-month mission and has the record for operating days on the moon. Yutu-2 explored the Von Kármán crater in the Aitken Basin near the Moon's south pole.

Read about the highly successful Chang'e 5 mission

Chandrayaan 2 - Indian Space Research Organisation

The second lunar mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was launched on July 22, 2019 from Sriharikota. It reached the Moon and settled into a polar orbit to release the Vikram lander on September 02, 2019. Although the lander was released, communications were lost when it was 2.1 km above the surface. The orbiter is still functioning and studying the moon’s evolution and mapping minerals and water in the polar regions. The orbiter carries 8 instruments including cameras, spectrometers, radar and a solar x-ray monitor. Chandrayaan 2 is well beyond its 1 year expected lifetime. It is currently in good shape to allow a full 7-year mission. The high resolution camera is returning data on the polar surface that will help build topographic maps to assist in determining the best places for landing humans on the lunar surface.

ARTEMIS-P1 and ARTEMIS-P2

Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun (ARTEMIS) satellites were originally called THEMIS-B and THEMIS-C and were launched as part of a fleet of 5 spacecraft used to study the Earth's magnetic field. For 2 years the fleet measured radiation and particles in the near Earth environment. Because the fleet could not longer maintain the orbit they needed to work together, in 2010 these two satellites were moved into lunar orbit. On July 17, 2011 they settled into a "kidney-shaped" orbit around the Moon. Just as these probe were used to study the environment around Earth, the newly renamed mission uses the instruments on the spacecraft to learn how the Moon interacts with space around it. It is expected that this "Artemis" mission will remain operating in lunar orbit for a long time to come. This mission has been renamed THEMIS-ARTEMIS to avoid confusion.

Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE)

CAPSTONE is a Lunar orbiter that is part of NASA’s Artemis program. CAPSTONE's mission will help reduce risk for future space missions and help NASA to understand the dynamics of the near-rectilinear halo orbit. CAPSTONE is a NASA Cube-Sat that was launched by Rocket Labs on their Electron rocket in 2021. The CubeSat was created by Advanced Space located in Boulder, Colorado. Advanced Space was awarded a $13.7 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract on September 13, 2019.

CAPSTONE's orbit is known as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) and is expected to be the ideal orbit for a lunar space station. The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of the lunar south pole when it is closest to the moon (periapsis) and 43,500 miles from the north pole when it is at the farthest distance (apoapsis). The orbit will be completed every seven days. This orbit can reduce the amount of fuel needed by spacecraft flying to and from the Moon’s surface than other lunar orbits. It is located at a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon (L1) and offers stability for long-term missions like Gateway. The NRHO orbit requires minimal energy to maintain. CAPSTONE’s orbit can establish that this location is an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond.

CAPSTONE traveled for three months before reaching its target orbit on November 14, 2022. It must stay in this lunar orbit at least 6 months to allow NASA to understand the characteristics of the orbit. It will help define the power and propulsion requirements to maintain this NRHO orbit. CAPSTONE will also demonstrate spacecraft navigation solutions and communication capabilities with Earth. The NRHO provides an unobstructed view of Earth in addition to coverage of the lunar South Pole where today's lunar exploration is focused. CAPSTONE has completed its primary mission and appears to be in good shape to continue the evaluation of the NRHO orbit.

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NASA Artemis Program

NASA's Artemis program will send astronauts back to the Moon and establish a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface by 2025. The Moon is a stepping stone for human exploration of Mars and other destinations in the solar system. Key components of Artemis include the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the Orion spacecraft, and the Gateway lunar orbiting outpost. The last time humans walked on the lunar surface was during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

NASA launched the Artemis-1 mission from the Kennedy Space Center on November 16, 2022. Orion completed a lunar flyby on November 21. It then entered a distant retrograde orbit for six days, finally completing a second flyby of the Moon on December 5. The spacecraft returned to Earth on December 11, 2022.

To return to Earth, the Orion spacecraft bounced off Earth's upper atmosphere briefly and then came back down, something like a rock skipping across the surface of a pond. This maneuver is actually called, "skip reentry". Orion's heat shield performed as expected, protecting the capsule as it encountered the atmosphere. Finally, Orion used parachutes on the last step before landing, splashing down off the coast of Baja California.

Read more about Artemis at Astra's.

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Upcoming Missions

Lunar Trailblazer

Lunar Trailblazer is a planned small lunar orbiter, part of NASA's Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, that will detect and map water on the lunar surface to determine how its form, abundance, and location relate to geology. This mission should aid in understanding of lunar water and a possible lunar water cycle. It will help to determine how water is distributed on the Moon by latitude as well how it is affected by the hot and cold environment of the Moon. Lunar Trailblazer is currently planned to launch as a secondary payload on the IM-2 mission, and is on track for a 4Q 2024 launch as a ride share with NASA's Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission that will be studying the solar heliosphere.

Instruments for Lunar Trailblazer:

The High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3) is an Offner-type imaging spectrometer that is optimized to study water working in the 600 to 3600 nm spectral range. It can distinguish bound OH/water from water ice. It can also identfy CO2, CH3, NH3, and other similar molecules. HVM3 has three main components: a spectrometer, focal plane array, and telescope.

The Lunar Thermal Mapper (LTM) provides an independent estimate of surface temperature in the areas the High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3) observes.

Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER)

VIPER is a mobile robot that will be sent to the south pole of the Moon to seek the location of water ice that can be used to support human exploration on the Moon. Development of VIPER continues under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program that NASA is sponsoring to partner with US commercial companies to deliver payloads to the surface of the Moon. VIPER is planned for launch to the lunar surface in late 2024.

Viper is 8 feet (2.5 m) tall and 5 feet (1.5 m) in length and width. It is being built to crawl around inside craters. The rover must be able to move over different types of soil and up and down inclines. Each of the rover's wheels have active suspension and independent steering so it can move sideways and diagonally or spin in a circle. VIPER will travel at ~0.5 mph over the lunar surface. VIPER is the first NASA rover with headlights so it can explore inside dark craters. Its specially designed cameras will work in light and dark conditions.

VIPER will be delivered to the lunar surface on Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander. Griffin is capable of delivering up to 500kg of mass to the lunar surface. Griffin's propulsion system uses 7 main engines to perform all maneuvers including trans-lunar injection, trajectory correction, lunar orbit insertion, and powered descent. Viper will land at Gruithuisen Domes on the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms.

Chang’e-7

CNSA plans to launch Chang’e-7 in 2026, to carry out a detailed survey of the Moon’s south pole, including mapping the distribution of ice in its shadowy craters. The mission uses an orbiter, relay satellite, lander, and a rover. The mission's primary objective is searching for water ice in a permanently shadowed region (PSR) on the moon.

Chang’e-8

CNSA plans to launch Chang’e-8 in 2028.

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Lunar Exploration Missions Under Development

These lunar missions are being developed around the world. Most of the information on this lunar exploration web page provides a limited overview. Astra encourages further investigation through the multitude of sources available on the internet. The focus is on programs that seem to be the most likely to be completed and the list will obviously change.

Artemis program logo

Artemis - to the Moon and Back . . to stay

The Artemis program is a NASA human spaceflight program to launch "the first woman and the next man" to the Moon. The goal is to make the next visit to the Moon in 2025 using a commercially-developed lander. The lander has been contracted to SpaceX. The spacecraft Orion will be launched on the US Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

- - Learn more from Astra's Guide to Artemis

Lunar Gateway

Lunar Gateway is a collaboration to build a space station in a special lunar orbit (near rectilinear) that has international support. In 2021 the space development company, Rocket Lab will launch a CubeSat into lunar orbit for NASA. Using its Electron rocket and Photon Lunar spacecraft the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat will launch to this unique lunar orbit. From the Moon's perspective this orbit moves the satellite in a polar orbit that is closer to the northern pole and farther from the southern pole. The orbit is using the L1 center of mass between Earth and the Moon. This near-rectilinear halo orbit may be called "NRHO".

Although it is uncertain the role the Lunar Gateway will have for NASA's Artemis-3 mission, NASA's Gateway site states:

In the future, our current ISS partners will provide important contributions to Gateway, comprising advanced external robotics, additional habitation and possibly other enhancements. Canada announced in February 2019 its intention to participate in the Gateway and contribute advanced external robotics. In June 2020, the Canadian Space Agency announced its intention to award a contract to MDA to build the Canadarm3 for Artemis deep space missions. In October 2019, Japan announced plans to join the United States on the Gateway with contributions of habitation components and logistics resupply. In November 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) received authorization and funding to support its planned contributions to the Gateway including habitation and refueling. In October 2020, ESA signed an agreement with NASA to contribute habitation and refueling modules and enhanced lunar communications to the Gateway. ESA also provides two additional European Service Modules (ESMs) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Russia has also expressed interest in cooperating on the Gateway.

Find out more about Lunar Gateway at Astra's

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NASA's Commercial Lunar Development Projects

In 2014, NASA announced the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) initiative to form commercial partnerships for lunar exploration to encourage the development of robotic lunar landers to deliver payloads to the lunar surface. NASA selected Astrobotic Technology, Masten Space Systems Inc., and Moon Express Inc. to continue the development of their landers.

As of November 2020, NASA selected surface task order awards and payload assignments for the first scheduled Lunar missions.

Lunar landers will be equipped with Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA) containing eight 1.25 cm reflectors. The mirror reflects laser light from other spacecraft to determine the lander’s position. For precision navigation they will all carry Navigation Doppler LIDAR (NDL).

Astrobotic Technology developed the Peregrine Lunar Lander that was intended to deliver 14 payloads to the Moon. The lander had a payload mass capacity of 90 kg. The cargo lander was launched by United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket's maiden flight on January 8, 2024. The payload was deployed, but the spacecraft lost propellent when a valve stuck open after its first orbital maneuver. The lander lost too much propellent to land on the Moon. See recent failures on this page.

Astrobotic also won NASA’s Lunar Surface and Instrumentation and Technology Payload (LSITP) program to develop a lunar rover. Astrobotic's Griffin Lander should fly to the Moon in 2024. The lander will provide power, communications, and data transfer for scientific investigations that it carries or deploys.

- - Read more about Astrobotic Technology on Astra's Commercial Space Exploration page

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Intuitive Machines (IM) is developing the Nova-C Lunar Lander. Intuitive Machines' has contracted with SpaceX to launch their missions Falcon 9 rocket. The Nova-C Lunar Lander can deliver 100 kg to the surface of the moon. It makes a soft landing and it can land anywhere on the moon.

IM-1 mission

Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission called Nova-C launched on February 15, 2024 and landed on the lunar surface on February 22, 2024. After a seven day flight, it landed on its side near the Malapert A crater in the southern lunar highlands. The Nova-C spacecraft has been named Odysseus, after the mythical Greek sailor. The spacecraft uses methane and oxygen as liquid propellants. Because the engine was fueled while the spacecraft was on the launch pad, SpaceX had to make modifications to the launch pad and the Falcon rocket. Fueling Nova-C on the pad was necessary to prevent "boil off" of the propellents.

Fifteen minutes after Odysseus landed on the Moon, mission controllers detected a weak signal. The weak signal was caused by the facts that the lander's two powerful antennae are not able to communicate from their position. Communications with the craft was possible because Intuitive Machines operates their own lunar data network. Additionally, the solar panels and thermal control system are operative.

The scientific payload includes the Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA), Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL), Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1), Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS), and Radio wave Observation at the Lunar Surface of the photoElectron Sheath (ROLSES). In total, Odysseus carries six NASA payloads and six commercial payloads.

Nova-C lander, Image credit: Intuitive Machines
Intuitive Machines IM-1 Nova-C Lander

I find the video below published on YouTube by NASA Space News helpful. There is one problem that was shown to me in the comments is that descriptions include the Iris Lunar Rover that was lost with the Peregrine lander earlier this year. Landing details are given along with the good results and the bad results.

Odysseus Instruments:

Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1) a CubeSat-sized experiment that will demonstrate autonomous navigation to aid future missions. Developed at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS) will capture video and still image of the Nova C's plume while landing on the lunar surface until the engine shuts off. Developed at NASA Langley Research Center, it will aid future lunar and Mars vehicle designs.

Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES): ROLSES will use a low-frequency radio receiver to take measurements to learn how radio antennas are affected on the lunar surface The ROLSES measurements will confirm how well a lunar surface-based radio observatory would be able to observe and image solar radio bursts. Developed by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Radio Frequency Mass Gauge (RFMG) is a technology demonstration that measures cryogenic propellants in low-gravity or under low settling thrust conditions where sloshing can be an issue. Developed by NASA Glenn Research Center.

Commercial payloads include Omni-heat Infinity, providing heat protection from Nova-C; Lunagram, a plate bolted on the outside of the lander; Moonphase artwork; Lonestar Lunar, a data storage and processing system; EagleCam, a camera that will be deployed prior to the landing and record the spacecraft as it lands; IXO-1, a small, dual camera system that is intended as a precursor to a lunar observatory known as International Lunar Observatory (ILO) under development by the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA Hawai'i).

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IM-2 Polar Mission

Intuitive Machines 2, TO PRIME-1 mission will deliver a drill and mass spectrometer near the south pole of the Moon. This mission is a tech demonstration of in-situ resource utilization or ISRU. It will measure the volatile content of subsurface samples. IM-2 is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2024.

- - Read more about the Intuitive Machines on Astra's Commercial Space Exploration page

Masten Space Systems is developing the XL-1 lunar lander to deliver payloads to the southern pole of the Moon in 2022. Masten also won NASA's "Tipping Point" award to develop Metal Oxidation Warming System (MOWS), a chemical heating solution to help spacecraft survive in sunlight-deprived lunar environments. Masten also continues to develop its reusable rocket, Xogdor.

Masten Space Systems filed bankruptcy and was bought out by Astrobiotic in 2022.

XL-1 Lander Delivering Payloads to the Lunar Surface

NASA selected science and technology payloads for the XL-1 Masten Lander to deliver to the lunar surface. The investigations and demonstrations will help the agency to land humans on the Moon. The XL-1 should be able to operate for 12 days on the surface.

Projects for lunar delivery services and advance capabilities include:

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Firefly Aerospace was awarded a NASA CLPS contract On February 4, 2021. The contract is worth $93.3 million tasking Firefly to deliver a suite of 10 science investigations and technology demonstrations to the Moon. Firefly is building its lander Blue Ghost that is scheduled to be launch in 2024.

- - Find out more about Firefly Aerospace at Astra's.

The payloads to be carried to the Moon by Blue Ghost are expected to total 94 kg (207 lbs.) in mass. A brief description follows:

The Regolith Adherence Characterization (RAC) will study how the lunar regolith or soil sticks to various materials

Next Generation Lunar Retroreflectors (NGLR) will serve as targets for Earth-based lasers

Lunar Environment Heliospheric X-ray Imager (LEXI) will study how the Earth's magnetosphere interacts with the solar wind.

Reconfigurable, Radiation Tolerant Computer System (RadPC) will test computer radiation-tolerance and help characterize the radiation effects on the lunar surface.

Lunar Magnetotelluric Sounder (LMS) will characterize the structure and composition of the Moon's mantle by studying electric and magnetic fields. This instrument is a spare from Mars MAVEN orbiter.

Lunar Instrumentation for Subsurface Thermal Exploration with Rapidity (LISTER) - will measure heat flow from the Moon's interior by drilling into the lunar surface.

Lunar PlanetVac (LPV) - will gather lunar soil and transfer it to science instruments for analysis, then package it for return to Earth.

Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies (SCALPSS) will capture video and still images from the area under the lander when the engine plume disturbs the lunar surface.

Electrodynamic Dust Shield (EDS) will use an electric field attempting to remove lunar dust.

The Lunar GNSS Receiver Experiment (LuGRE) will attempt to discern GPS signals at lunar distances.

Go to Astra's Commercial Space Developers

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Luna 26 - Luna-Resurs orbiter

Luna 26 is a lunar orbiter mission that will make UHF radio link tests and gain experience in polar orbital operations. It will study Luna-27 landing site candidates and measure space plasma in the lunar vicinity. Future missions are being planned.

Chang’e-8

Chang’e-8 is Chinas's follow-on mission that will be used to pave test in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology. Early in 2022, Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration announced plans to set up a joint moon base by 2027, with Change’e-8 planned as a starting point. The base is called, International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and it was announced in 2022 that they were speeding up their schedule.

Completed Missions

These mission are in order by end of mission, incomplete missions may be listed but failed missions will be omitted

Chandrayaan 3 - Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

India's Chandrayaan-3 mission consists of a propulsion module (PM), a lander module (LM), and a rover. Their stated goal was to develop and demonstrate new technologies required for inter-planetary missions. The LM soft landed at a site near the Moon's south pole and deployed the Rover that carried out chemical analysis of the lunar surface as it moved on the surface. The PM carried the LM into a lunar 100-km polar orbit and separated from the Lander. The Chandrayaan 3 mission was launched on India's LVM3 M4 rocket on July 15, 2023. The LM successfully soft landed on the Moon at 12:32 UT on August 23, 2023! After a highly successful mission the lander and rover were put into sleep mode for the 14-day long lunar night and did not revive after sunrise. It was a hope only that the batteries could be recharged.

ISRO's Chandrayann-3 Lander
India's Chandrayann-3 Lander artwork provided by ISRO

The name Chandrayaan means "mooncraft" and the lander is named Vikram for Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of India's space program.

Chandrayaan 3 Instruments

+Download the Chandrayaan 3 brochure at ISRO

Chang'e 5 - China National Space Administration

Chang'e 5 spacecraft rendering by CNSA

Chang'e 5 is a Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) lunar sample return mission that launched on November 23, 2020 from Wenchang Space Launch Center. Chang’e 5 launched on a Long March 5 rocket that sent the spacecraft into a trajectory that got it to the Moon.

The Chang’e 5 spacecraft had 4 modules. The Service Module (SM) systems remained in lunar orbit during surface operations. It was equipped with solar arrays, communication systems, and carried the propulsion system and attitude control thrusters. The propulsion system on the Service Module performed trajectory correction maneuvers, the lunar orbit insertion burn, orbital maintenance and then brought the spacecraft back to Earth. The Lander and the Ascent Vehicle (AV) were released in lunar orbit on November 30. They traveled together to the lunar surface.

The Return Vehicle (RV) was the special vessel that carried samples back to Earth. It had its own thruster system to control its orientation, onboard measurement systems, and communication beacons to announce its location after landing.

The lander set down in the Mons Rumker region of Oceanus Procellarum on December 1, 2020. It arrived at the beginning of a lunar day (lasting 2 Earth weeks) to collect a 2-kg sample of the lunar regolith. The mission had to be finished quickly because the sensitive equipment would not survive intact during the 14-day lunar "night". Oceanus Procellarum or Ocean of Storms was created by lunar volcanic forces. This part of the Moon is thought to be relatively young, about 1.2 billion years old. The lander used a mechanical scoop and a drill to collect samples. It was hoped that samples could be obtained 2 meters or 6 feet below the surface. Chang’e 5 had a robotic arm to gather loose regolith and small rocks and transfer them to the Ascent vehicle. When the samples had been secured, the AV launched from the lunar surface to dock with Chang'e 5 spacecraft. The remainder of the landing system ceased operations after the launch of the lunar payload.

A rendezvous in lunar orbit was another milestone on this impressive mission. The samples were transferred to the Return Vehicle in lunar orbit. The SM and Return Vehicle returned to Earth on December 16, 2020. The SM released the return vehicle and samples. To slow down from the great speed that was required to bring the vessel back, an atmospheric braking maneuver called "skip reentry" helped to slow down the return capsule. It made a hard landing (but not fatal) in the Ulanqab region of Mongolia, China, and was recovered quickly. The entire mission took 23 days to complete and recovered 2 kilograms or 4.4 pounds of lunar samples.

Beresheet

SpaceIL, a non-profit organization with help from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) built the Beresheet spacecraft intended to land on the Moon. Beresheet means "beginning". On April 4, 2019, "Beresheet" completed the Lunar Orbit Insertion Maneuver, making Israel the 7th country to reach the moon. Unfortunately, the mission's lander did not land successfully on the surface. It carried a time capsule, some experiments, and scientific instruments.

Chang'e 3

Launched on December 1, 2013, Chang'e 3 soft landed on the lunar surface on December 15. It delivered a lander to the lunar surface named "Yutu" or "Jade Rabbit". This rover traveled 114 meters (374 feet) on the lunar surface and was unable to move across the surface after January 2014. It continued to transmit data from its stationary position and was last heard from in March 2015.

Lunar-based ultraviolet telescope (LUT)

Chang'e 3 lander also carried a 150 mm (~6 in) Ritchey–Chrétien telescope that can be used to observe stars and galaxies in the near-UV band (245–340 nm), and can detect objects down to 13mag. The Moon's thin exosphere and slow rotation allows for uninterrupted observations of a target. Its major constraint is that it must be used when the Sun is over the horizon so special filters are needed. The telescope has been powered off by CSNA.

Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE)

LADEE was the first lunar mission launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on September 7, 2013. This robotic mission orbited the moon to study the structure and composition of the thin lunar atmosphere (called exosphere), and determine if dust is lofted off the surface. While in orbit, LADEE studied the landing of China’s Chang’e 3 on December 2013 recording what substances (i.e., water, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen) might be present due to the Chang'e 3 landing. The LRO probe took an image of LADEE in January 2014 and recorded the impact of LADEE when the mission ended with a controlled impact on January 15, 2015.

Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL)

GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B were launched on September 10, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft went into polar orbits of the Moon. They were used for gravity mapping by taking measurements between the 2 vehicles. The mission ended by controlled lunar impacts on December 17, 2012. The next close pass of the Earth for the probe is expected in 2029.

Chang'e - 2

Chang'e-2 launched to the moon on October 1, 2010. This mission produced better maps of the lunar surface. The spacecraft was to help identify locations for a lander for China. Chang'e-2 left lunar orbit and flew to the L2 Lagrange point, where the gravitational pull of the Earth and Sun is equal. Here they tested deep-space communications and tracking for future missions. In April 2012, the spacecraft moved off to flyby the asteroid 4179 Toutatis in January 2013.

Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS)

LCROSS launched with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft on June 18 2009. LCROSS searched for water ice on the Moon's surface by directing the 2000-kg Centaur upper stage that launched it from Earth to impact on the Moon at Cabeus crater. The impact was observed by the LRO satellite. The spacecraft that dropped the spent rocket for impact was called, the "Sheparding Spacecraft". The impact on October 9, 2009 was located at 84-deg. S and 311-deg E on the lunar surface. The impact velocity was ~2.5 km/sec at an angle of ~75 degrees. The missions found evidence that the lunar soil in shadowy craters is rich in useful materials. The moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. LCROSS was built from commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) instruments to keep the costs low.

Chandrayaan 1

Chandrayaan 1 was an Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched on October 22, 2008 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India. The probe studied lunar mineralogy, found evidence of water molecules locked in mineral grains, and mapped the Apollo landing sites. The spacecraft launched the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) to the lunar surface on November 14, 2008 at the south pole near the Shackleton crater. Communication from Chandrayaan 1 ended abruptly on August 28, 2009 about 10 months into its 2-year mission.

Chang'e - 1

The Chang'e-1 probe was launched on October 24, 2007 on a Long March rocket. The mission was named after the Chinese Moon goddess, Chang'e. The orbiter mapped features on the moon using microwave imaging, identified elements on the lunar surface, and tested the soil for Helium-3. It also studied solar wind and radiation at the Moon. The probe made a controlled impact on the lunar surface on March 1, 2009.

SELenological and ENgineering Explorer (SELENE)

Also called Kaguya, SELENE was a Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) lunar orbiter mission. SELENE consisted of 3 satellites: the orbiter, a Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) radio satellite, and a relay satellite to receive signals from the orbiter when on the far side of the Moon. Kaguya launched on September 14, 2007 from Tanegashima Space Center. Kaguya's mission ended with a controlled impact on the Moon on June 10, 2009.

Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology (SMART-1)

The SMART-1 spacecraft launched on September 27, 2003 from Kourou, French Guiana by the European Space Agency (ESA.) It was a lunar orbiter and a test for a solar-powered ion drive. Its primary mission was to study the Moon to answer questions about the origin of the Earth-Moon system. SMART-1 performed a controlled crash to the lunar surface on September 3, 2006.

Lunar Prospector

Lunar Prospector launched on January 6, 1998 from Kennedy Space Center. The probe operated in low polar orbit, mapped the surface and looked for ice depositions. On July 31, 1999, Lunar Prospector made a controlled impact on the Moon near the south pole.

Clementine Project

Clementine was launched on January 25, 1994 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. After reaching orbit, lunar mapping took place for ~3 months. The mission ended when a computer malfunction used up all of its fuel.

Hiten (Celestial Maiden)

Launched by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (Japan) on January 24, 1990, this probe was also known as Muses-A. At first the probe was off course and its main science experiment probe, Hagoromo, had failed. The Hiten spacecraft was placed in lunar orbit successfully thanks to an orbital trajectory solution submitted to the Japanese space agency by scientists at the Jet Propulsion laboratory. After 3 years, 2 months into the mission the orbiter was deliberately crashed on the lunar surface.

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Recent Mission Failures

So the lunar exploration and colonization is underway, but many of the recent attempts to land hardware on the Moon have resulted in failure or, at best, partial success. Many recent failures for space explorers have been attributed to faulty valves. Looks like this is something that will have to be addressed by all space developers.

Astrobotic Technology developed the Peregrine Lunar Lander that was intended to deliver 14 payloads to the Moon. The lander has a payload mass capacity of 90 kg. The cargo lander was launched by United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket's maiden flight on January 8, 2024. The payload was deployed, but the spacecraft lost propellent when a valve stuck open after its first orbital maneuver. The lander lost too much propellent to land on the Moon. Peregrine lander reentered Earth's atmosphere on January 18 at 21:04 UT (4:04 p.m. EST). This mission was to land Gruithuisen Domes on the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms.

Instruments:

Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS) is radiation monitor.

PROSPECT Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) was to study the lunar exosphere (the Moon's scant atmosphere.)

Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), near-Infrared spectrometer.

Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) to measure the gasses coming from the spacecraft during touchdown.

Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS) is a neutron spectrometer with two neutron counters that measure neutron flux at the lunar surface.

Fluxgate Magnetometer (MAG) is a magnetometer to measure local magnetic fields near the lunar surface.

Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL) is a neutral mass spectrometer to test spacecraft outgassing and how it interacted with the lunar landing surface and exosphere.

Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) provides accurate altitude and vector velocity data to ensure the spacecraft can land safely on the Moon.

Photovoltaic Investigation on Lunar Surface (PILS) is a small testbed for solar cells based on cells previously used in space.

The Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA) is a reflector that bounces light that shines on it backward, 180 degrees from the light source. The LRA is has eight retroreflectors that are attached to the lander deck. LRA is designed to bounce laser light from orbiting and landing spacecraft to enable precision laser ranging. Too small for laser ranging from Earth, the LRA will serve as a location marker on the Moon for decades. (Obviously another LRA must be installed on the Moon's surface.)

- - Read more about the Peregrine Lander on Astra's Artemis page

Luna 25 - Luna Glob lander

Luna 25 - Luna Glob lander continues Russian lunar exploration that began under the Soviet Union. Roscosmos has launched its first lunar mission in nearly 50 years. Luna 25 launched on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, at 7:10 p.m. EDT on August 10, 2023. The lander crashed on the Moon on August 19, 2023. 11:58 UTC in the crater Pontecoulant G. The target touchdown site was Boguslavsky crater located at about 69.5 degrees latitude, closer to the Moon's South Pole than any previous mission has landed. Luna 25 lander was also be equipped with a robotic arm and eight scientific instruments.

Luna 25 Instruments

Hakuto-R Mission 1

The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lunar lander was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on December 11, 2022. On April 25, 2023, the probe crash landed on the Moon due to a software error involving imagining of the lunar surface. If successful, Hakuto-R would have been the first commercial lunar lander. Hakuto-R Mission 1 (Hakuto-R M1) is a Japanese technology demonstration lunar lander. It was built by Ispace, Inc., a Japanese commercial company. Hakuto carried commercial and government payloads, including two lunar rovers- - Rashid and the Japanese Lunar Excursion Vehicle. Hakuto-R entered lunar orbit on March 21, 2023 and was expected to land on April 25. Unfortunately, communications with Hakuto-R Mission 1 was lost during the final moments of descent. The lander crashed on the lunar surface.

Rashid was a United Arab Emirates (UAE) lunar rover. Rashid was planned to operate for one lunar day from sunrise to sunset, that is about 14 Earth days. It was to study the geology of the Moon, lunar soil, dust movement, and the surface plasma environment. The rover's mass was ~10 kg. It had four cameras: two high-resolution cameras, a microscopic camera, and a thermal imaging camera. The rover also carried a Langmuir probe that will study the Moon's plasma environment.

The Japanese Lunar Excursion Vehicle is a Transformable Lunar Robot, named SORA-Q. When launched it was an 8-cm sphere, when it landed it was open up into a cylindrical shape. The rover would crawl across the surface in a unique way and carry cameras for surface observations. The lunar robot was jointly developed by JAXA, Takara Tomy, the Sony Group, and Doshisha University. The tiny robot is based on the designs that were used to make transformable toys.

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Successful USSR Lunar Probes

Luna 3 was launched on October 4, 1959, performed a flyby of the Moon and successfully returned images of the moon's far side.

Luna 9 launched on 31 January 1966, the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon. It transmitted photographic data from the Moon's surface.

Luna 16 was launched on September 12, 1970 and made a successful landing on the Moon in the Sea of Fertility (Mare Foecunditatis.) The first robotic lander drilled to a depth of 35-cm before encountering hard rock. The lunar regolith was transferred to a soil sample container. The Luna 16 re-entry capsule successfully lifted off from the Moon with 101 grams of material. It returned to Earth and dropped the sample safely using parachutes.

Lunokhod 1

Luna 17 soft landed on the Moon on November 17, 1970 in the Sea of Rains. The spacecraft deployed the first lunar rover Lunokhod 1 that operated until October 4, 1971 (20th anniversary of Sputnik!) exceeding its expected lifetime. Lunokhod had traveled 10,540 m and returned 20,000 images and conducted more than 500 lunar soil tests.

Luna 19 was a Soviet Moon orbital mission launched on September 28, 1971. On November 1, 1972 communications were lost after the craft completed 4000 orbits.

Luna 20 was a Soviet Moon orbiting mission launched on 28 February 1971. It soft landed on the Moon near near the Sea of Fertility (Mare Foecunditatis.) Lunar samples (30 grams) were collected launched from the lunar surface on February 22, 1972 and were returned to Earth.

Luna 22 was a lunar orbiter mission launched May 5, 1974. The spacecraft was identical to the less successful Luna 19 reaching its intended orbit. It had imaging cameras and studied the Moon's magnetic field, gravitational field, micrometeorites, and cosmic rays.

Lunokhod 2

Luna 21 landed at LeMonnier crater on January 15, 1973 carrying the second lunar rover. Lunokhod 2 operated for about 4 months, traveled 37 km and returned over 80,000 images.

Luna 21 was launched on January 8, 1973 and made a successful landing on January 12, 1793 on the Moon in LeMonnier Crater. The second Lunokhod robotic lander operated for about 4 months, covered 37 km of the lunar surface including hilly areas and rilles, and sent back 86 images and over 80,000 TV pictures. It traveled the lunar surface for 4 months.

Zond Program was highly successful. There were 8 Zond missions in total with 7 successful results. More details will be added in the future at Astras.

The first lunar probes

Luna 1 was launched on January 2, 1959 by the Soviet Union and was the first spacecraft to reach the Moon. An early space probe, it discovered that the Moon has no magnetic field and detected a strong flow of ionized plasma from the Sun that moves through the solar system. This is known today as the solar wind.

Pioneer 4 was launched on March 3, 1959 passed within 60,000km of the Moon's surface , the first US probe to escape from the Earth's gravity.

The Right Stuff (offsite links)

Moon Missions - NASA website covering the history of Lunar Missions

March to the Moon - Arizona State University's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Digital Image Archive

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A mission patch for NASA Apollo missions

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