Why are space agencies racing to the moon's south pole?

Space Race 2.0: Why space agencies from Russia, India, the US and China are all vying to be the first to land on the moon’s south pole

  • Russia’s lander crashed at the weekend during attempts to land on lunar south
  • But India is about to try its own landing – and the US and China could soon follow 

Vladimir Putin was left red-faced at the weekend when Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft spectacularly spun into an uncontrolled orbit and crashed into the moon. 

The 3,757lbs (1,750kg) lander, launched by Russian space agency Roscosmos earlier in August, was intended to be the first human object to touch down on the moon’s south pole.

All eyes are now on India’s Chandrayaan-3 lander, which has been in lunar orbit for over two weeks and will attempt to take the record on Wednesday.

But as part of what’s being described as ‘space race 2.0’, China and the US also have ambitions to land at the moon’s southernmost region later this decade. 

So what is it about the lunar south that means the world’s greatest space superpowers are so interested in getting there? MailOnline takes a closer look. 

India is attempting to become the first nation to successfully land on the moon’s south pole after Russia’s failure at the weekend. But also part of what’s being described as ‘space race 2.0’, China and the US also have ambitions to land at the moon’s southernmost region later this decade.

The moon’s south pole is of special interest to space agencies and their scientists because it has a particular abundance of water, frozen as ice. This photo released by the Roscosmos State Space Corporation on August 17, 2023, shows an image of the lunar south pole region on the far side of the moon captured by Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft before its failed attempt to land

READ MORE Russia blames engine failure for embarrassing crash 

Luna-25 (pictured during take off on August 11) crashed into the moon after its engines failed to shut down correctly


Russia failed to put its name in the history books as the first to land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole, and although it is expected to try a fresh attempt ,this may not be for another five years. 

Valery Yegorov, a former researcher with Russia’s space programme who now lives in exile, said the crash would severely affect Roscosmos’s future missions, with the next one not planned until 2028 or ‘even later’.

The lunar mission was Russia’s first since 1976, when it was part of the Soviet Union, and this decades-long pause in lunar exploration was blamed for the mishap. 

Crucially, it means India is now in prime position to make history as the first country to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole, and the fourth after the US, Russia and China to land a craft on the moon overall. 

Chandrayaan-3 – which launched on July 14 from Satish Dhawan Space Centre north of Chennai – will try a soft landing between the southern craters of Manzinus and Boguslawsky on Wednesday (August 23).

Russia’s state space corporation, Roscosmos, said it had lost contact with the craft shortly after a problem occurred as the craft was shunted into pre-landing orbit on Saturday

All eyes are now on India’s Chandrayaan-3 lander, which has been in lunar orbit for over two weeks and will attempt touchdown on the lunar south pole on Wednesday. Pictured is the lander above the moon during lunar orbit insertion on August 5

China’s Chang’e programme

China’s last mission in the Chang’e programme (Chang’e 5 in late 2020) landed near a huge volcanic complex, Mons Rümker, located in the northwest lunar near side.

Chang’e-5 returned lunar rock samples to Earth that date back 2 billion years, analysis found. 

Next year, Chang’e 6 will land at the Apollo basin on the moon’s far side (known as the ‘dark side of the moon’).

The following mission, Chang’e 7 scheduled for 2026, has the lunar south pole as its destination.

If and when it does so, it will use science instruments to study the region’s surface for two weeks, before eventually becoming inactive and bringing the mission to the end. 

A previous Indian mission in 2019, called Chandrayaan-2, was obliterated after crashing on the lunar surface while trying to make a soft landing at the south pole.

If India’s retry all goes to plan this week, it looks likely that either China or the US will follow. 

China’s Chang’e 7 robotic exploration mission, scheduled for 2026, has the lunar south pole as its destination. 

Meanwhile, the US’s Artemis programme run by NASA, not content just with landing an uncrewed robotic gadget at the lunar south, wants to send humans instead. 

The Artemis III mission, which will land the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon, is currently planned for 2025, although NASA recently admitted this could be pushed back. 


The moon’s south pole is of special interest to space agencies and their scientists because it has a particular abundance of water, frozen as ice.

An artist’s impression shows Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft during its journey towards the moon 

What happened to Chandrayaan-2?

Chandrayaan-2 – which like its successor was made up of an orbiter, a lander and a rover – was launched in July 2019.

However, its mission was only partially successful.

The orbiter is still circling the moon today – carrying out scientific studies and beaming results back to Earth.

But the mission’s lander and rover were obliterated after crashing on the lunar surface while trying to make soft landing.

Indian Space Research Organisation chief S. Somanath said his engineers had carefully studied data from this failed mission and tried their best to fix the glitches ahead of Chandrayaan-3.

Pockets of this water ice, known as ‘cold traps’, have the potential to exist for thousands of years on airless bodies, such as the moon. 

Therefore, they could provide a record of lunar volcanoes, material that comets and asteroids delivered to Earth or the origin of former oceans, experts think. 

An abundance of water ice at the south pole is why it’s been identified as a possible future location for a human outpost, complete with living quarters. 

If water ice exists in sufficient quantities, it could be a source of drinking water for moon explorers and could help cool equipment, or be broken down to produce hydrogen for fuel and oxygen to breathe. 

More generally, space agencies love achieving milestones – especially if it’s before any of their rivals.

Once a region of space has been identified as a target for one space nation, others tend to follow, so it’s no coincidence that four at once have their sights set on the lunar south. 

Russia and the US especially have long endured a bitter rivalry, particularly in the lead up to the Americans landing humans on the moon for the first time in 1969. 


As early as the 1960s, before the first Apollo landing, scientists had speculated that water could exist on the moon. 

Samples the Apollo crews returned for analysis in the late 1960s and early 1970s appeared to be dry.

People look at a screen showing footage of the Chang-e 5 spacecraft on its mission to the moon

Chandrayaan-3 may be following in the footsteps of global space powers but it has taken the spacecraft a lot longer to get to the moon than NASA’s Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s

READ MORE Scientists find new and renewable source of water on the moon which ‘may support human life’ 

A moon sample from China’s Chang’e 5 mission

But in 2008, Brown University researchers revisited those lunar samples with new technology and found hydrogen inside tiny beads of volcanic glass. 

Then in 2009, a NASA instrument aboard the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-1 probe detected water on the moon’s surface.

In the same year, another NASA probe that hit the south pole found water ice below the moon’s surface. 

An earlier NASA mission, the 1998 Lunar Prospector, had found evidence that the highest concentration of water ice was in the south pole’s shadowed craters.


The south pole – far from the equatorial region targeted by previous missions, including the crewed Apollo landings – is full of craters and deep trenches. 

There’s also lower lighting at the poles, so a craft’s sensors need alternate methods of being able to detect the surface during descent. 

This also means dips in temperature; NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has measured temperatures lower than -410°F (-246°C) at the poles, which can put stress on a lander’s power systems. 


The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty prohibits any nation from claiming ownership of the moon, so there is no provision that favour one agency’s efforts.

A US-led effort to establish a set of principles for moon exploration and the use of its resources, the Artemis Accords, has 27 signatories. 

According to NASA, Artemis Accords set out the principles for a ‘safe, peaceful, and prosperous future’ in space exploration. 

Russia and China have not signed largely due to political tensions between the two countries and the US, although Russia has also said it is is too ‘US-centric’. 

As human presence increases on the moon in the next few decades it will intriguing to see how these tensions play out  – more than 200,000 miles from Earth. 

NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon in 2025 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2025 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

Who is Victor Glover? The man set to become NASA’s first black astronaut to orbit the moon

Victor Glover (pictured) was selected as an astronaut in 2013 and became the first African American ISS expedition crewmember to live on the ISS seven years later

NASA is set to send the first-ever black astronaut to the moon.

Victor Glover, 46, was selected to take part in the space agency’s Artemis II mission — the US’ first lunar mission in a half-century.

The Pomona, California, native will be the first person of color to travel into deep space, hundreds of thousands of miles beyond the low-Earth orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

NASA officials say the diverse crew assignments signify the cultural shifts that have taken place since the original Apollo missions, which ended in 1972, at a time when white men dominated space exploration.

Glover was also the first black man to ever live on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020 and is among 15 African Americans to be selected as an astronaut.

In his esteemed career since being selected as an astronaut in 2013, Mr Glover has logged over 3,000 flight hours in 40 different aircraft.

Artemis II – which will launch in November 2024 – will see the four-man crew orbit the moon in the Orion spacecraft but not land.

Their goal is to test new technology, including heat shields that protects Orion as it travels 24,500 mph in 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit on its way back.

If successful, NASA plans to launch an expedition to land on the moon titled Artemis III. Another success would spell out a trip to Mars for NASA. 

‘I wanna thank God for this Amazing opportunity,’ Mr Glover said during a new conference Monday.

‘This is a big day. We have a lot to celebrate. It’s so much more than the four names that have been announced. We need to celebrate this moment in human history.

‘Artermis II is more than a mission to the Moon and back. It’s more than a mission that has to happen before we send people to the surface of the moon. It is the next step on the journey that gets humanity to Mars.

‘This crew will never forget that.’

Mr Glover was born in 1976 in Pomona, around 30 miles east of Los Angeles.

The city is far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, known for its high poverty rate and relatively high crime. 

Mr Glover grew up in Ponoma, CA, 30 miles east of Los Angeles

He said his parents and teachers served as mentors as him growing up.

‘Early on in life it had to be my parents; they encouraged me and challenged me and held me to high standards. Outside of home, I had teachers that did the same,’ he told USA Today in 2017.

‘They all challenged me, and they encouraged me.’

Mr Glover continued that his teachers and parents urged him to go the engineering school and eventually become a test pilot — leading to him becoming an astronaut. 

He graduated from Southern California’s Ontario High School in 1994, and went on to attend California Polytechnic State University, before completing his graduate education at Air University and the US Naval Academy.

‘I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college, and being at graduation with my mom and my dad and my stepdad and my little brothers and my grandparents,’ he said to USA Today.

‘That was unreal, that was cool and it was special for me.’

In 1999 he was commissioned as part of the US Navy. After completing flight training in Corpus Christy, Texas, he was ‘given his wings’ and awarded the title of pilot in 2001.

He then moved to San Diego to learn to fly the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, known as one of the Navy’s more versatile aircraft.

After spending the next two years training in Florida and Virginia, he was deployed to Iraq in 2004 for six months.

Mr Glover was working in the office of the late Sen John McCain as a legislative fellow when he was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 2013.

NASA only selects a handful of the thousands of people that apply to be a member of the nation’s astronaut corps each year. Only 15 black astronauts have ever been selected out of 348.

A vast majority of the 41 current astronauts have a military background, like Mr Glover.

He completed his astronaut training in 2015. Three years later, he was selected to be a part of the first ever operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, a reusable aircraft designed by the firm Elon Musk found in 2002.

As part of that mission, he would live on the ISS from November 17, 2020 to May 2, 2021.

The nearly six-month-long stay on the station makes him the first black astronaut to inhabit it.

Jeanette Epps, 52, who was selected to be an astronaut in 2009 is set to become the second African American, and first black woman, to live on the ISS after the launch of Boeing Starliner-1 in 2024 or later.

In 2020, Mr Glover said it was an honor to be the first black person selected to the ISS.

‘It is something to be celebrated once we accomplish it, and I am honored to be in this position and to be a part of this great and experienced crew,’ he said during a news conference. 

‘I look forward to getting up there and doing my best to make sure, you know, we are worthy of all the work that’s been put into setting us up for this mission.’

In an interview with The Christian Chronicle later that year, he said there were qualified black astronauts that should have earned the honor before him.

‘I’ve had some amazing colleagues before me that really could have done it, and there are some amazing folks that will go behind me,’ he said. 

‘I wish it would have already been done, but I try not to draw too much attention to it.’ 

Who is Christina Koch? The first female NASA astronaut set to orbit the moon

Christina Koch is set to become the first woman to go around the moon when NASA’s Artemis II mission takes off next year.

Christina Koch, 44, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, is set to become the first woman to go around the moon

The Grand Rapids, Michigan native, 44, is already the record-holder for the longest amount of time a woman has spent in space, 328 days, and for taking part in the first all-female spacewalk in 2019.

Selected to become an astronaut in 2013, Ms Koch said she has not followed a ‘checklist’ in order to become an astronaut — but instead chased her passions whether this be rock climbing, sailing or even learning to surf in her 40s.

She said in 2020: ‘I really don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an astronaut. 

‘For me, I learned that if I was going to be an astronaut, it was because my passions had turned me into someone that could contribute the most as someone contributing to human space flight.’

While she’s exploring space, her husband Robert will be left taking care of housework and the couple’s puppy, LBD. It is not believed that they have children.

‘Am I excited? Absolutely!’ she said at a news conference at the crew’s announcement Monday.

‘The one thing I’m most excited about is that we will carry your excitement,your aspirations, your dreams, on this mission.’

She also said: ‘We are going to launch from Kennedy space center, we are going to here the words “go for launch” on top of the most powerful rocket NASA’s ever made.’

NASA has sent a total of 355 people to space so far, of which some 55 have been women — or 15 percent. It has also sent 24 people to orbit the moon and 12 to walk on the lunar surface who were all men.

Russian Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to ever leave the earth’s atmosphere — setting off in 1937. American women did not get sent to space until 1983.

Ms Koch, however, will make history on the Artemis II mission when she completes her long-awaited trip around the moon.

She revealed her love of space in a video when she was announced as a member of the Artemis I team in 2020.

The astronaut said: ‘I am someone who has loved exploration on the frontier since I was little. 

‘I used to be inspired by the night sky and throughout my career,  it’s been this balance between engineering for space science missions and doing science in really remote places all over the world.

‘I loved things that made me feel small, things that made me ponder the size of the universe, my place in it and everything that was out there to explore.’

She added: ‘I didn’t necessarily live my life following check boxes of how you could become an astronaut.

‘But I followed those passions and one day I looked at what I had become and the skills I had gathered and I asked “could I sit across from a table and present myself as someone who could do this well?”. And I thought, I’m going to give this a shot.’ 

She went to North Carolina State University in Raleigh to get a bachelor’s and a master’s in Electrical Engineering.

She then became an Electrical Engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, before becoming a research associate for the United States Antarctic Program — living an entire year in the Arctic.

Ms Koch was one of eight selected as part of NASA’s 21st class of astronauts in 2013. After two years of training, she became a full-fledged astronaut.

Her first space flight came in 2019 when she was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) to work as a flight engineer.

She stayed up there for 328 days, taking the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman. The previous record holder, Peggy Whitson, was in space for 288 days.

While in space she also took the record for the first all-women space walk — when an astronaut gets out of a vehicle while in space — with Jessica Meir.

The pair spent seven hours and 17 minutes on the side of the ISS as they worked to replace a power controller. The walk also included a brief call with President Trump.

Upon her return to Earth in 2020, Ms Koch said she felt ‘like a baby’ who was two weeks old and working hard to hold up its head.

Back on Earth, she lives in Galveston, Texas, just outside of the Houston area.

Among her interests are backpacking, running, yoga, photography and travel.

Now she will be a part of a groundbreaking mission in NASA’s goal towards putting a man on Mars. 

The Artemis II mission marks NASA’s first trip to the moon in half a century. It says it will be performed to help test kit in preparation for getting humans onto Mars.

The agency sent an empty Orion capsule around the moon last year before it returned to Earth in a long-awaited dress rehearsal.

If this latest mission goes well, then another flight to land people on the moon will be sent in 2025 — as part of tests ahead of getting people onto Mars.

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