History and Ongoing Lunar Missions
Many missions have taken place to explore the Moon, including scientific endeavours and human exploration, prior to the historic 1969 mission of Apollo 11.
Below are a list of programs that lead to NASA’s moon landing event in 1969:
Luna Programme (1959-1976)
The Soviet Union’s Luna programme achieved several important milestones in space exploration. The Luna 2 spacecraft was the first man-made object to land on another celestial body and the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon. Also in 1959, the Luna 3 spacecraft returned the first-ever images of the far-side of the Moon. The Luna 9 spacecraft became the first spacecraft to successfully land softly on the lunar surface in 1966. That same year, Luna 10 was the first spacecraft to successfully orbit the Moon, making it the Moon’s first artificial satellite. The Luna 17 (1970) and Luna 21 (1973) missions also carried robotic lunar vehicles to the Moon that travelled across the Moon’s surface. In total, fifteen of the programme’s missions were successful, with many conducting valuable scientific experiments that investigated the lunar composition, temperature, radiation and gravity. The programme also successfully collected samples of lunar soil and returned them to Earth.
Ranger Programme (1961-1965)
The American Ranger programme sought to capture up-close images of the lunar surface. After six failed attempts, the Ranger 7 (1964) was the country’s first spacecraft to successfully transmit images of the lunar surface back to Earth before crash landing on the Moon’s surface. This was followed by two subsequent successful missions of a similar nature by the Ranger 8 and Ranger 9 spacecrafts.
Zond Programme (1964-1970)
The Soviet Union’s Zond programme sought to demonstrate technology for future planetary missions. Onboard the Zond 5 spacecraft in 1969, a variety of living payloads (such as two Russian tortoises, plants, worms, and other living material) were the first lifeforms to travel around the Moon and return safely. This was also the first lunar spacecraft to be successfully recovered.
Lunar Orbiter Programme (1966-1967)
The American Lunar Orbiter programme consisted of five missions of spacecraft that orbited the Moon to help NASA map the lunar surface in efforts of selecting landing sites for the upcoming manned missions of the Apollo programme. These missions delivered the first photographs from the orbit of the Moon of both the Moon and Earth.
Surveyor Programme (1966-1968)
The American Surveyor programme sent seven robotic spacecraft to the lunar surface and was implemented by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to prepare for upcoming manned missions to the Moon as part of the Apollo programme. Five of the spacecraft successfully soft-landed on the Moon as intended and all seven spacecraft remain on the lunar surface today. During the Apollo 12 mission in 1969, parts of the Surveyor 3 spacecraft were collected and returned to Earth.
Apollo Programme (1960-1972)
The American Apollo program successfully brought the first humans to another celestial surface. The Apollo 8 mission marked the first manned flight to Moon. Most integrally, during the Apollo 11 mission on 20 July 1969, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their lunar module and walked on the lunar surface. It is estimated that roughly one fifth of the Earth’s population watched the event on television. There were five subsequent successful Apollo missions following the historic Apollo 11 mission that also landed astronauts on the Moon through to 1972. Throughout these six spaceflights, and to date, twelve men have walked on the Moon. This program also delivered valuable scientific research, as more than 350 kilograms of lunar soil and rock was returned to Earth for analysis. Lunar dust samples were also widely shared with nations worldwide. The missions and accomplishments conducted by the Apollo program instilled global fascination and inspiration with space exploration and space science. The historic achievement has also encouraged the development of subsequent human space exploration endeavours for years to come.
Ongoing Lunar missions
Since the historic 1969 moon landing event, a variety of mission to the moon have taken place to help develop our understanding of our nearest celestial neighbour. Below is a list of operational missions currently operating on the lunar surface or in lunar orbit:
Two American ARTEMIS satellites (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) were launched in 2007 and remain today on the lunar surface, actively studying the relationship between the Moon and the Sun while in orbit of the Moon.
The American Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is a NASA spacecraft that was launched 2009 and is currently orbiting the Moon to map the lunar surface. The orbiter is intended to locate possible lunar resources and identify landing sites for future lunar missions.
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme is an ongoing series of robotic missions (including orbiting spacecraft, landers, and rovers) by the China National Space Administration. Operational missions currently include the Chang'e 5-T1 mission to test the re-entry conditions for an upcoming sample-return mission, and the Chang'e 4 that successfully deployed Yutu-2 rover in January 2019 and is now exploring a large basin on the far side of the Moon. Future missions of this programme will include ambitious endeavours such as exploration and returning a sample from the Moon’s south pole, the delivery of a small ecosystem experiment, and a 3D printing experiment to build a lunar structure.
There are several future lunar missions scheduled or proposed by various nations or organisations worldwide. IAU100 looks forward to the technological and scientific success of these future lunar initiatives!