A Busy Decade for Lunar Exploration
By: Cody Knipfer

After minutes of anxious tension, all eyes focused on the video monitors, the control room at the Indian Space Research Organization’s headquarters burst into cheers. At 6:03 pm (IST) on August 23, the Chandrayaan-3 lander, Vikram, gently touched down on the lunar surface. With it, India became the fourth country in history to safely arrive on the Moon – joining the United States, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), and China. Even more impressively, the country now holds the distinction of being the first ever to land on the lunar south pole; uncharted territory that scientists believe could hold vital reserves of frozen water and precious elements. 

Chandrayaan-3’s arrival is a sign of the heightened focus and attention the international space community is once again placing on lunar exploration. In fact, the mission was joined in a journey to the Moon by Russia’s own lander, Luna 25, which unfortunately failed during final orbital maneuvers in lunar orbit. Making it to the Moon is no simple feat, as also seen by the recent failures – despite being tantalizingly close – of Israel’s Beresheet lander (the first-ever attempt by a private company to land on the Moon) and iSpace’s “HAKUTO-R” landing mission. Yet the extreme technological challenges of lunar exploration aren’t stopping the international space community – both governments and private companies – from making attempts in the coming years. The Moon is about to become a very busy place.

After a flurry of activity during the 1960s and 1970s “Space Race,” lunar exploration slowed significantly. Indeed, no missions were launched at all between 1976 and 1990. Between 2012 and 2022, 8 missions were launched – including China’s first successful Chang’e landers, the failed Beresheet, and India’s first (failed) landing attempt with Chandrayaan-2.  Remarkably, in the next five years alone, that number is set to at least double. 

What’s on the horizon for lunar exploration? Another rapid pace of missions, with some notable potential firsts – including the first return of humans to the lunar surface in over half a century, the first private mission to the Moon, the first sample return from the lunar far side, the first Japanese lunar landing, and, possibly, the first European lunar landing. 



  • JAXA’s SLIM mission – featuring a lander, rover, and hopper – will be, if successful, Japan’s first lunar surface mission. It is designed to demonstrate precise, pinpointed lunar descent.
  • Through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which is sponsoring a fleet of commercial robotic Moon missions, Intuitive Machines will land its Nova-C lander on the IM-1 mission. The mission will land in the south polar region, at a site identified as a potential landing zone for future lunar expeditions. The IM-2 mission, launching later that year, will also carry NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer ride-along lunar scientific orbiter, as well as the company’s own NASA-supported hopper called Micro-Nova, which will jump around the Moon with a camera to take images of the surface. 
  • Also through CLPS, Astrobotic will land its Peregrine lander, carry a diverse suite of scientific instruments, technologies, mementos, and other payloads from six different countries, dozens of science teams, and hundreds of individuals. 


  • China will launch its Queqiao 2 relay satellite to lunar orbit, to support future missions of the Chinese lunar exploration program targeting the lunar south pole. 
  • China’s Chang’e 6 mission, featuring a lander and a rover, will conduct an ambitious landing and sample return from the far side of the Moon – a region from which samples have never before been collected. 
  • Intuitive Machine’s IM-3 mission, as part of CLPS, will carry a data relay satellite and NASA rover to explore the Reiner Gamma region on the Moon – an unusual feature thought to be related to the Moon’s crustal magnetic field.
  • Firefly Aerospace will land its Blue Ghost lander, the first of the company’s CLPS missions, at Mare Crisium, a dark patch located at the Moon’s upper-right as seen from Earth. 
  • Astrobotic will land NASA’s VIPER rover at the lunar south pole. The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, is set to map water on the Moon’s south pole – paving the way for future lunar habitats while also providing insights into the origin of water in the solar system.
  • iSpace, a Japanese company, will try again for a lunar landing with its HAKUTO-R Mission 2, carrying a micro-rover used for collecting lunar regolith that the company will then sell to NASA. 


  • NASA and Northrop Grumman will put the “Power and Propulsion Element” and “Habitation and Logistics Outpost,” elements of the Lunar Gateway, into a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. The Gateway will be a key component of NASA’s crewed Artemis program, serving as multi-purpose outpost that provides essential support for long-term human return to the lunar surface and as a staging point for deep space exploration.
  • Draper’s SERIES-2 lander, developed in partnership with iSpace, will head to Schrödinger Basin, a large lunar impact crater on the far side of the Moon close to the lunar South Pole, as part of the CLPS program.


  • Japan and India will partner on the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission – also known as Chandrayaan-4 – to deliver a lander and rover that will explore the Moon’s south pole. 
  • Firefly Aerospace’s second CLPS mission, Blue Ghost M2, will deliver a European Space Agency relay satellite to lunar orbit and land on the far side of the Moon. 
  • China’s Chang’e 7 lander, rover, and planned mini-flying probe will look for the presence of water near the lunar south pole.  
  • Astrobotic will launch Mission 3 – its first not currently part of CLPS – to carry hundreds of kilograms of customer payloads to a site on the surface near the south pole of the Moon. 


  • Russia’s Luna 26 relay orbiter (2027) and Luna 27 lander (2028) will launch to the Moon, where Luna 27 will visit the South Pole-Aitken basin, an unexplored area on the far side of the Moon, to detect and characterize lunar polar volatiles. 
  • China’s Chang’e 8 lander, rover, and hopper will land at the Moon’s south pole to test the prospects of using 3D printing technologies with lunar materials to construct buildings and structures on the moon. 


  • ESA’s Argonaut, Europe’s first own lunar lander, may be launched to the Moon. Argonaut is being designed to allow versatile access to the lunar surface with many options for its payloads – from cargo and infrastructure delivery to scientific operations, a rover or a power station.
  • Israel plans to launch its Beresheet 2 lander to the Moon in 2025, although funding for the project now faces uncertainty
  • Launching aboard a SpaceX Starship, the DearMoon mission will be the first-ever private, all-civilian mission beyond Earth orbit. The crew will make a week-long journey circumnavigating the Moon and returning to Earth. 

And, of course, these are mostly only robotic missions! The renewed interest in lunar exploration is anchored by the ambitious plans of the United States to return humans to the lunar surface in this decade, and China’s own plans to begin constructing a crewed lunar research base in the coming years. 

NASA’s Artemis Program seeks to land “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon by late 2025, aboard Artemis 3. If successful on that timeline, that mission will be the first time in over 50 years that a person has stepped foot on the lunar surface, and the first-ever crewed mission to the lunar south pole. Several missions are planned for the Artemis program – including Artemis 2, launching in 2024, to fly around the Moon. It will be the first crewed flight beyond Earth in many decades – and carry the first non-American, a Canadian, to lunar space. A series of future Artemis landing missions, including Artemis 4 and 5, are scheduled for later in the decade. Meanwhile, China’s Chang’e rovers are a sequential development process toward construction of the “International Lunar Research Station” (ILRS), a planned lunar base currently led by the China National Space Administration. China plans beginning constructing the surface facilities for the ILRS by the early 2030s, in preparation for crewed missions thereafter. 

The expected pace of activity on the lunar surface in the coming years is an exciting prospect for the space community, but also raises substantial questions about the future of sustainable lunar governance. Unfortunately, progress in the United Nations toward developing comprehensive “guidelines” and norms for lunar operations – especially regarding the use of space resources, such as lunar regolith and water ice – is lagging. However, some progress is being made from a “bottom-up” approach: NASA has issued a set of technical guidelines to govern future American missions to the lunar surface, and the Artemis Accords, a set of voluntary best practices for human exploration of space and the lunar surface, now has 28 national signatories, including India.

NGOs are also actively involved in helping shape the future of lunar sustainability. SGAC’s Effective and Adaptive Governance for a Lunar Ecosystem (E.A.G.L.E.). Action Team, for example, has issued a report outlining sustainable best practices for future Moon exploration, and calling for a “Lunar Governance Charter” that can clarify issues or misunderstandings on concepts such as safety zones, priority rights, heritage protection, interoperability, and commercial space. A Lunar Governance Charter, SGAC advocates, can also consolidate existing consensus on the operationalization of fundamental principles of space law within the context of lunar activities.

Given how busy the next decade will be for lunar exploration, issues related to interoperability, safety, and sustainability will likely need to be addressed and solved for necessity’s sake. One thing is for certain, though – for explorers traveling to the Moon in the coming years, they’ll need to look out for traffic.