ESO Moon.jpg
Exploring the Moon

A history of lunar discovery from the first
space probes to recent times
The first robot explorers

Landers and orbiters 1

Landers and orbiters 2

Sample returns and lunar rovers

Map of lunar landings

Table of Moon probes

Apollo to the Moon!

Meeting the challenge

Repeating the feat

Driving on the Moon

Heading for the hills

Apollo lunar mission chronology

Russia’s secret manned Moon programme

What did we learn from Apollo?

Lunar exploration since Apollo

The international Moon fleet

Exploring the Apollo landing sites 1

Exploring the Apollo landing sites 2

Exploring the Moon on stamps

Background image:
The waning crescent Moon.
(European Southern Observatory)

Text © Ian Ridpath

These pages support Ian’s talk on Exploring the Moon
The international Moon fleet

Japan led off a new wave of exploration in 2007 with its second Moon probe, Kaguya, also known as SELENE. Kaguya carried a twin-camera system, the Terrain Camera (TC), that has sent some astonishingly detailed three-dimensional views of the surface, including the Apollo landing sites. Superb flyover movies of the surface have been made by the high-definition TV system, while other instruments studied the surface composition and topography. Two subsatellites, Okina and Ouna, were released to measure the gravitational field of the Moon. In future, Japan has plans to land a probe on the Moon, possibly with a surface rover.

Hot on the heels of Kaguya came
Kaguya Earth.jpg

Earth over the Moon’s south pole from Kaguya
China’s first Moon probe, Chang’e-1, named after a Chinese Moon goddess. Its instruments and aims were much the same as Kaguya. A detailed 3D photographic map of the entire Moon was made. A second orbiter, Chang’e 2, was launched in 2010 with improved instruments and a lower orbit. Chang’e 3 landed on the Sinus Iridum in 2013 December, carrying a small rover. A sample-return mission is expected in 2017, leading to an eventual manned landing.

Another nation embarking on lunar exploration is India. The Indian Space Research Organization’s first Moon probe was Chandrayaan-1, meaning ‘Moon craft’ in Sanskrit, launched in 2008. Among its instruments, Chandrayaan-1 carried a stereo camera with a resolution of 5 metres, better even than the one aboard Kaguya. Several instruments were devoted to studies of the Moon’s crustal composition, including the Moon Mineralogy Mapper supplied by NASA and a modified version of the British-built X-ray spectrometer that first flew on the European SMART-1 probe.

Like China and Japan, India also plans to land a rover on the Moon in the next few years. As a precursor to that landing, Chandrayaan-1 released a Moon Impact Probe which hit the Moon near the south pole on 2008 November 14. If all these plans come to fruition we could have much new information about previously unexplored regions of the Moon within the next ten years.

A NASA Moon probe called Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was launched in June 2009. Its main aims are to look for interesting landing sites for future manned missions and to pursue the search for possible frozen water at the poles. One of its most spectacular successes has been to photograph the equipment left behind by the Apollo astronauts at their various landing sites, and even the trails they left in the lunar dust as they moved around on foot and in the lunar rover.

As part of the continuing search for ice on the Moon, the spent upper stage of LRO’s launch rocket was crashed into a permanently shadowed region within the crater Cabeus near the Moon’s south pole on 2009 October 9. A sub-probe called the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), following four minutes behind the upper stage, observed the spray of debris thrown up by the impact, analysing it for signs of water vapour, before hitting the Moon itself and throwing up its own plume of debris. A small amount of water vapour was found in the dust of the crater’s floor. Better still, a NASA instrument called the Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar, or Mini-SAR, aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 has found signs of ice at least six feet deep in over 40 craters at the Moon’s poles.

Despite these positive findings, NASA’s plans for sending humans back to the Moon, called the Constellation programme, were cancelled by the US government in 2010. Hence the next humans to return to the Moon might not be American or Russian but Chinese, Indian or Japanese. Russia, incidentally, has not sent another probe to the Moon since Luna 24 in 1976.

For a list of recent and forthcoming missions see
Launch date
Kaguya (also known as SELENE)
2007 September 14
Japanese lunar orbiter. Compiled photographic atlas from polar orbit. Measured surface composition and crustal thickness
2007 October 24
Chinese lunar orbiter. Stereo imaging and surface studies
2008 October 22
Indian Space Research Organization lunar orbiter. Found signs of ice at the Moon’s poles
2009 June 18
NASA spacecraft in low polar orbit. High-resolution mapping of surface features and topography
2010 October 1
Chinese lunar orbiter. Surveyed landing sites for Chang’e 3 unmanned rover. Subsequently flew past the asteroid Toutatis
2011 September 10
Twin NASA orbiters. Mapped the Moon’s gravitational field in detail
2013 December 1
Landed on the Sinus Iridum on 2013 December 14, delivering a rover called Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”)