A Chinese robotic probe called Chang’e 5 is on its way to the moon where it will land, scoop up samples and return them to Earth. This is the first robotic sample return mission since Russian efforts in the 1960s. Those were an effort to make their mark on the lunar surface after their manned moon program failed.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic landing on the moon in July 1969, a secret Russian robotic probe called Luna 15 was there at the same time. It was an attempt to grab a sample of lunar soil and return it to Earth before the American astronauts got back. The Russians had lost the race to put humans on the moon, but were trying to grab a ‘first’ and master the moon robotically.
Unfortunately, Luna 15 crashed during it’s landing attempt and the opportunity for a propaganda coup was lost. However, their Luna 16 mission did successfully return about 100 grams of lunar soil a year later and two other sample return missions succeeded in following years, with the last one, Luna 24, in 1976 — two years after the Apollo program had ended.
While these robotic sample return missions did not deliver as much lunar material as the Apollo astronauts, they were considerably cheaper and part of a long history of both Russian and American robotic lunar exploration involving dozens of impactors, orbiters, landers and rovers.
In a way, we’re in another moon race right now that echoes the race of fifty years ago — except this time it seems the robots might be in the lead. China is using robotic landers to explore the moon, and, if all goes well, Chang’e 5 will bring back several kilograms of moon rocks. In the meantime, the U.S. is struggling to develop a far more expensive effort, relying on huge (and much delayed) rockets that will carry humans to the moon with their Artemis program.
It once again brings up the question of whether humans or robots are best suited to space exploration.
We debated this on a special edition of Quirks & Quarks last year.
Human missions are much more expensive, and historically they are much more politically driven than robotic exploration. The decision by the Kennedy administration in 1961 to send humans to the moon was part of the Cold War competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union to prove technical superiority over one another.
The current Artemis program has also been politically influenced. Originally the plan was to first build a space station called Gateway in orbit around the moon. Once it was completed, astronauts would be sent down to the surface some time later this decade. When the Trump administration came to power, the landing was pushed forward to 2024, which would have been the last year of President Trump’s second term in office. The Biden administration has not said whether it will keep to that tight schedule.
NASA’s giant new moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) is slated to make its first flight next year. In the meantime three private companies — SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics — have been contracted to develop lunar landers that would ride on their own rockets. But the pace of development in these programs makes NASA’s current 2024 moon landing deadline pretty ambitious.
Meanwhile, China is continuing its robotic program beyond the moon with the Tianwen 1 mission currently on its way to Mars. The spacecraft includes an orbiter and a lander, which will make China the third country to make a soft landing on Mars after Russia and the U.S. This is not a sample return mission, but it is not unreasonable to think that China could apply similar technology it is using on the moon to return samples from Mars in the future.
Robots have always boldly gone where no one has gone before, exploring every planet in the solar system, as well as dwarf planets, moons, asteroids and comets. They conduct the initial reconnaissance of other worlds, survey the lay of the land and choose the best landing sites for humans who follow.
A whole fleet of robots are currently flying around the solar system. Two others are on their way to Mars with the United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission and NASA’s Perseverance lander scheduled to arrive in February.
Beyond Mars, the Japanese Hayabusa2 and American, OSIRIS-REx spacecraft are bringing home samples they collected from asteroids. NASA is planning future missions to visit Europa, a moon of Jupiter and Titan, a mysterious moon of Saturn, the only moon with a thick atmosphere and liquid methane lakes on its surface.
There is no doubt it will be a dramatic moment when the next human feet step out onto lunar soil again. Human exploration of space captures the imagination of the public, provides role models for young people and tests the limits of technical, physical and psychological endurance. But humans have not gone very far. The last mission to the moon was in 1972. It will still stretch the limits of our technology to get back there almost half a century later,
Meanwhile, the true explorers of space, our silent mechanical servants, will continue their more far-reaching journeys to literally reach out and touch other worlds.