The moon is laying out the welcome mat. Last month, China placed a lander and a rover on the lunar surface, ending a 37-year gap in visits to our closest celestial neighbor.
But the Chinese spacecraft won’t be alone for long. A caravan of international and privately funded missions is on the horizon, including several efforts hoping to prospect for resources to aid future human missions.
China had initially said that its Chang’e-3 spacecraft would end up in the moon’s Bay of Rainbows. But the actual site it will explore may be even more interesting scientifically: The Chang’e-3 lander touched down in a dark plain called the Sea of Rains, on the far eastern edge of its targeted landing area.
This vast volcanic plain appears to contain some of the youngest lava flows on the moon, as well as rocks ejected by impacts that could be parts of the buried lunar crust. Armed with cameras, a spectrometer and ground-penetrating radar, the mission’s Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover might help to piece together the moon’s volcanic history.
India, Japan and South Korea also have plans to send landers and rovers to explore the moon in the next few years, although they have not yet stated their destinations.
Meanwhile, the United States, Russia and several private ventures hope to reach the moon’s poles by 2018. Orbital data suggest that the polar rocks and craters are filled with water ice, which could be harvested for astronaut hydration, radiation shielding and even rocket fuel. If moon mining plans come to fruition, future lunar outposts could become rest stops for missions headed to Mars and beyond.