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Lunar timeline: humanity's explorations of the moon

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the lunar surface during the first moon landing in 1969.
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the lunar surface during the first moon landing in 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

The moon, Earth's closest celestial neighbor, has been an object of wonder and mystery since time immemorial.

Scientific missions over the centuries have peeled away layers of that mystery, but the moon continues to harbor many secrets. This timeline of humanity's exploration of the moon, provided by NASA, is not by any means comprehensive but does highlight some of the major milestones dating back four centuries:

Galileo Galilei made the first telescopic observation of the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

1609: Hans Lippershey invented the telescope.

1610: Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (opens in new tab) made the first telescopic observation of the moon.

1610: Thomas Harriot and Galileo Galilei drew the first telescopic representation of the moon.

1645: Michael Florent van Langren made the first map of the moon.

1647: Johannes Hevelius published the first treatise devoted to the moon.

1651: Giovanni Battista Riccioli named craters after philosophers and astronomers.

1753: Roger Joseph Boscovich proved the moon has no atmosphere.

1824: Franz von Gruithuisen thought craters were formed by meteor strikes.

1920: Robert Goddard suggested sending rockets to the moon.

1959: Soviet spacecraft Luna 2 reached the moon, impacting near the crater Autolycus.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. (Image credit: NASA)

1961: President John F. Kennedy (opens in new tab) proposed a manned lunar program.

1964: NASA's Ranger 7 (opens in new tab) produced the first close-up TV pictures of the lunar surface.

1966: Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the moon.

1967: NASA's Lunar Orbiter missions completed photographic mapping of the moon.

1968: NASA's Apollo 8 (opens in new tab) made the first crewed flight to the moon, circling it 10 times before returning to Earth. 

1969: The Apollo 11 (opens in new tab) mission made the first landing on the moon and returned samples.

1969: Apollo 12 (opens in new tab) made first precision landing on the the moon.

1972: Apollo 17 (opens in new tab) made the last crewed landing of the Apollo Program.

1976: Soviet Luna 24 returned the last sample to be returned from the moon for decades to come.

1990: NASA's Galileo (opens in new tab) spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, obtained multispectral images of the western limb and part of the far side of the moon.

1994: NASA's Clementine mission conducted multispectral mapping of the moon.

1998: NASA's Lunar Prospector mission launched.

2007: Japanese SELENE (Kaguya) (opens in new tab) spacecraft launched.

2007: China's Chang'e 1 (opens in new tab) lunar orbiter launched.

2008: India's Chandrayaan 1 (opens in new tab) moon orbiter launched.

2009: NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (opens in new tab) launched along with the LCROSS probe (opens in new tab) which crashed into the moon, revealing water ice.

2010: China's Chang'e 2 (opens in new tab) lunar orbiter launched, taking photographs to prepare for future landings.

2011: NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (opens in new tab) (GRAIL) mission mapped the moon's gravitational field in detail.

2013: NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (opens in new tab) (LADEE) investigated the lunar atmosphere and dust. 

2013: China's Chang'e 3 (opens in new tab) successfully landed a rover called Yutu that photographed (opens in new tab) the moon's surface. 

China's Yutu moon rover, photographed by the Chang'e 3 lander in December of 2013. The lunar far-side mission, Chang'e 4, which launched on Dec. 7, 2018, was designed as a backup for Chang'e 3. (Image credit: CASC/China Ministry of Defense)

2014: A test vehicle for the future Chang'e 5 mission launched and flew by the moon to demonstrate a strategy for lunar sample return.

2018: The Queqiao (opens in new tab) satellite took position to relay commands and data between the Chang'e 4 lander, scheduled to land on the far side of the moon, and Earth.

2018: The Chinese Chang'e 4 (opens in new tab) mission landed on the far side of the moon and began transmitting images (opens in new tab).

2019: Israel's first moon lander, Beresheet (opens in new tab), crashed into the moon's surface.

2019: Chandrayaan 2 (opens in new tab), India's second mission to the moon, launched. The rover appears to have crashed, but the orbiter is in operation. 

2020: China's Chang'e 5 (opens in new tab) launched, landed on the moon, and returned with samples (opens in new tab) to Earth. 

Coming in 2021

2021: NASA's Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (or CAPSTONE (opens in new tab)) cubesat is scheduled to launch via a Rocket Lab Electron rocket (opens in new tab)

2021: Peregrine Mission 1, the first commercial lunar landing, is scheduled to launch. It will include Astrobotic's Peregrine (opens in new tab) lander and close to a dozen other NASA payloads like the Iris rover (opens in new tab).

2021: Russia plans to launch Luna 25 (opens in new tab), a lander developed in collaboration with the ESA. (Luna-24 launched in 1976.)

2021: Intuitive Machines plans to land its Nova-C (opens in new tab) craft with private and NASA payloads. 

2021: NASA plans to launch several cubesats (opens in new tab) via the Space Launch System (opens in new tab) rocket as part of the Artemis program (opens in new tab) to return astronauts to the moon. OMOTENASHI (opens in new tab), Japan's first lunar lander, and a Japanese cubesat called EQUULEUS are expected to launch as part of this block as well. 

This article was updated on Mar. 15, 2021 by Space.com Reference Editor Vicky Stein with new information about upcoming missions. 

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