Visiting the Moon's Uncharted Territory

China is about to make space history. The country launched the first spacecraft ever to land on the farside of the moon. Another craft, slated for takeoff in 2019, will be the first to bring lunar rocks back to Earth since 1976.

These two missions — the latest in China’s lunar exploration series named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e — are at the forefront of renewed interest in exploring our nearest celestial body. India’s space agency and companies based in Israel and Germany are also hoping for robotic lunar missions in 2019. The United States aims to have astronauts orbiting the moon starting in 2023 and to land astronauts on the lunar surface in the late 2020s.

Chang’e-4 is aiming for the moon’s largest, deepest and possibly oldest known feature created by an impact, the South Pole–Aitken basin, on the lunar farside, which always faces away from Earth. Sometime in 2019, the Chang’e-5 craft will visit a region on the near side of the moon that no spacecraft or astronaut has been to before. And that mission will give scientists something they haven’t had in more than four decades — new lunar rock samples.

Chang’e-5’s lander will scoop surface rocks and dig two meters deep in a 58,000-square-kilometer area called the Rümker region and return to Earth.

Studying samples from this region could reveal if the moon has been geologically active more recently than previously thought. Understanding the moon’s volcanic history could shed light on competing ideas about how the moon came to be. Finding evidence for more recent geologic activity could be a ding for the single impact hypothesis.

U.S. scientists face roadblocks to studying the new samples, thanks to the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 federal budget clause that requires congressional approval before U.S. scientists can collaborate with China or any Chinese-owned company.