It seems like everyone who’s anyone is sending a spacecraft to the south pole of the Moon these days. India just landed there, and Russia recently crashed a lander trying to get there. The U.S. plans to land a crew there in 2025, and China is angling for some of the same landing sites for its uncrewed lander. After decades of mostly overlooking the Moon, everyone’s suddenly extremely interested.
Some of the reasons are unavoidably political, just like they were in the 1960s.
But one important factor is that in the decades since the last humans set foot on the Moon, we’ve discovered water ice hidden in the shadows of deep craters near the Moon’s southern pole. That new information makes the Moon extremely compelling again — more on that below.
NASA is also getting serious about sending astronauts to Mars, and the agency sees the Moon as an important stepping stone on that route — both literally and figuratively. Going to the Moon and establishing a presence there will help develop technology and plans that astronauts can use on the way to Mars later. And in a more literal sense, NASA expects to use the Moon, and a space station in lunar orbit called Gateway, as waystations for missions setting out on the much longer journey to Mars.
Other countries, especially China, India, and Russia, are also setting their sights on the lunar south pole. In some cases, their space agencies have long-range ambitions for their own crewed missions to Mars, but in the short run, these nations also want the prestige of Moon landings.
What’s so important about the south pole of the Moon?
The south pole region of the Moon is heavily cratered and extremely rough terrain, very different from the relatively smooth, flat expanses of cooled lava the Apollo astronauts explored in the 1970s. But the deep craters around the pole probably hold the key to a self-sufficient Moon base: water ice, frozen in the permanently shadowed floor of the deepest craters.
If you’re looking to set up a base on the Moon, frozen water is good for a lot of things. You can thaw it and drink it, of course, but you can also split its molecules apart to make liquid hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel (and of course, oxygen is also nice because you can breathe it).
We have all of those things on Earth, of course, but water in particular is extremely heavy and therefore expensive to launch, in terms of both money and fuel. It’s much cheaper for a Moon base to get its water, rocket fuel, and air from the crater next door than to launch them from Earth. Mars missions will also benefit from being able to pick up supplies at an orbiting station like Gateway instead of having to launch them from Earth’s stronger gravity well.
Which countries are trying to explore the lunar south pole?
The major contenders so far are China, India, Russia, and the United States, although each of those countries plans to collaborate with others. China’s upcoming Chang’e-6 lander will carry instruments from France, Italy, Sweden, and Pakistan. India’s next lunar mission will be a joint effort with Japan. And NASA is working on its Artemis program with the European Space Agency (ESA), along with the space agencies of Germany, Israel, Italy, and Japan.
Here’s a timeline:
- 2024: Astronauts will orbit the Moon on NASA’s crewed Artemis II mission. China’s uncrewed Chang’e-6 lander will return rock and regolith samples from the far side of the Moon.
- 2025: NASA will launch the first two modules of the Gateway space station. Astronauts will land near the south pole of the Moon on NASA’s crewed Artemis III mission.
- 2026: China’s uncrewed Chang’e-7 mission will land near the lunar south pole with a lander and a flying drone.
- 2027: Russia’s Luna-26 mission (if it proceeds after the Luna-25 crash) will orbit the lunar poles.
- 2026-2028: India’s uncrewed Chandrayaan-4 mission, with Japan, will land a rover near the south pole of the Moon.
- 2028: China’s uncrewed Chang’e-8 mission will land near the lunar south pole and test technology for 3D printing buildings out of regolith. NASA’s crewed Artemis IV mission will land more astronauts on the Moon and deliver the main habitat module to Gateway.
- 2029: NASA’s crewed Artemis 5 mission will bring more astronauts and a lunar rover to Moon.
- 2029-2031: NASA will deliver four more modules to Gateway and land more astronauts on the Moon with its crewed Artemis 6 mission.
- 2035: China and Russia plan to establish a crewed joint lunar base called the International Lunar Research Station.
Given the political and economic tension between China (and Russia) and the United States — and the fact that China and the U.S. are eyeing some of the same landing spots for Chang’e-7 and Artemis III — the international race to claim landing spots and set up long-term bases at the lunar south pole could be a very tense one.
Doesn’t this story sound sort of familiar?
It should. The current scramble to explore the southern reaches of the Moon is unsettlingly similar to the original Cold War “space race.” But it’s also reminiscent of the early 20th-century race to be the first country to plant its flag at the South Pole of our own planet. As Mark Twain put it, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”