Since the moon is our closest celestial neighbor, it has been the main target of many space missions carried out by several countries around the world.
Lunar exploration has come a long way since Russia’s first probe reached the Moon, or since the first American astronaut set foot on the Moon’s surface.
We are now approaching the beginning of a new era in which humanity may begin a colony on the Moon within the next ten years.
This requires close international cooperation where countries can share resources, technologies and experiences on the ground.
To date, 11 countries and organizations have succeeded in sending spacecraft to the Moon.
These countries; The Soviet Union/Russia, the United States, Japan, China, India, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and the European Union represented by the European Space Agency.
However, not all of these landings mean landing a vehicle on the lunar surface or setting foot directly.
Moon landings are classified as hard landings or soft landings, depending on the rate at which the vehicle descends (and whether it needs to operate after landing).
Soft landings occur when the ship lands at a safe and slow speed and are necessary on crewed missions or missions where the ship is expected to conduct scientific measurements or tests after landing.
So far, only three countries have made a soft landing on the Moon: the United States, Russia, and China.
So which country, how many missions has it performed so far?
USA: 32 completed missions
The United States has undoubtedly led the space race so far. NASA made history during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 when the first man walked on the Moon.
The USA contributed greatly to the human exploration of the Moon through the Apollo program.
Between 1964 (Ranger 7) and 2018 (TESS flight), 32 missions were performed by the United States.
Six of these missions were manned missions: Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 carried a total of 12 astronauts who walked on the Moon.
NASA plans humanity’s return to the Moon in 2024 through the Artemis program.
Soviet Union / Russia: 23 completed missions
The Soviet Space Program was the first organization to reach the Moon with the Luna 2 spacecraft in 1959.
Many believe that this event was the main trigger for the real start of the space race.
The Soviet space program was indeed a pioneer in space exploration, and many of its cosmonauts, such as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man in space, became famous.
The Soviet Union has carried out 23 missions to the Moon in total, but to date no cosmonauts have landed on the Moon’s surface.
The mission could not be completed successfully, as the Luna-25, the last lunar mission to Russia, crashed while trying to land in the South Pole region.
China: 7 completed missions
The China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) began in 2007 with the launch of the Chang’e 1 lunar probe.
The mission’s main goal was to create a super-accurate 3-D map of the Moon.
In December 2019, China became the third country to make a soft landing on the Moon, thanks to the “Yutu” rover.
In total, China has completed its 7-month mission and plans to send humans to the Moon around 2030.
The most notable mission was Chang’e 4. The spacecraft made a historic landing on the far side of the Moon, where no humans or robots have been found before, in January 2019.
Japan: 2 completed missions
Japan’s first lunar probe was called HITEN (Heavenly Maiden) and was shipped in January 1990.
Its mission was to send a small satellite called Hagoromo close to the Moon, while also testing different technologies designed for lunar and planetary exploration.
A second mission to the Moon by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was completed in 2007.
A three-part spacecraft called SELENE (Selenological and Engineering Explorer) orbited the moon for a little over a year and a half in operation.
He did research on the origin, surface, geology and gravity of the moon.
Luxembourg: 1 completed quest
Luxembourg-based private company “LuxSpace” launched a small briefcase-sized probe on a Chinese Long Mark rocket.
The probe made a close flyby around the Moon and then crashed into the lunar surface.
The purpose of LuxSpace was to increase public interest in space exploration and to promote the microsatellite approach to space missions.
The Manfred Memorial Lunar Mission (4M) was the first privately funded mission to the Moon.
European Union: 1 completed mission
SMART-1 was a small probe designed and built by the Swedish Space Company on behalf of the European Space Agency.
The mission’s aim was to test new technologies such as solar-electric propulsion and communication techniques.
After orbiting the Moon for 3 years, the spacecraft crashed into the surface and ended its 3-year mission.
India: 1 completed mission
Chandrayaan-1 was the first lunar probe sent by India in 2008.
Their main goal was to gather more information about the geology and topography of the moon.
The mission lasted 10 months and played an important role in the discovery of water molecules on the moon.
Italy: 1 completed mission
ArgoMoon is a CubeSat launched on Artemis 1, the first mission of NASA’s Space Launch System, on November 16, 2022.
Its primary purpose was to take photographs of the Transient Cryogenic Propulsion Stage following Orion’s departure and demonstrate the capability of a spacecraft.
CubeSat will perform precision proximity maneuvers in deep space.
Israel: 1 completed mission
Beresheet was a joint mission between SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries.
The Mission’s aim in 2019 was to increase interest in space exploration among the younger generation.
The spacecraft carried a “time capsule” of more than 30 million pages of data, including the English Wikipedia, the Torah, and a children’s book inspired by the launch, as well as genetic samples and tardigrades inserted into space.
South Korea: 1 completed mission
The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), also known as Danuri, was a technology demonstration mission launched by South Korea on August 4, 2022, with the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket.
Its mission was to explore lunar resources such as water ice and helium-3, create a topographic map and assist in the selection of future lunar landing sites.
United Arab Emirates: 1 completed mission
In late 2022, a lunar rover was sent to the Moon by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) aboard ispace’s Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander.
Unfortunately, they lost contact with the vehicle shortly after the scheduled landing time.
They were unable to reconnect after 24 hours of investigation and called for the mission to be terminated prematurely.
Although the mission was not successful, technically the rover reached the Moon.
Countries Planning to Reach the Moon by 2030:
Numerous additional countries either have active space programs or are hosting privately funded space programs and are therefore likely to complete a manned or unmanned soft landing on the Moon by 2030.
One of these countries is Türkiye.
Türkiye will make a hard and soft landing on the Moon in the next 10 years.
The rocket will collect data on its three-day journey and transmit it to the world. With a soft landing in 2028, Turkey will become one of the few countries that can carry out scientific activities on the Moon.
Canada will carry out a joint mission with the EU and Japan, as well as a possible autonomous crash mission.
After the high-speed landing of India Chandrayaan-1 and the failed soft landing of Chandrayaan-2, India will once again attempt a successful soft landing with Chandrayaan-3.
Israel-based SpaceIL’s Beresheet lunar lander reached the Moon in February 2019 but crashed during the descent. While not yet funded, follow-up initiatives are planned.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to make a crewed landing, private company ispace is working with the US and UAE on landing-focused missions.
Mexico will send a micro rover as a payload to a future joint US/Mexico mission.
The planned landing and rover mission in South Africa and South Korea could begin in 2030.
Ukraine is working with collaborators in the UK and the US to carry out the mission to explore the Moon caves. But war with Russia will likely delay the mission.
The UAE, Japan and US-based companies are working together on an upcoming mission where the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will carry a Japanese-designed lander and the UAE’s Moon rover.
Graphic: Şeyma Özkaynak