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China is going to beat the United States back to the Moon

Published Dec 27th, 2016 8:00PM EST

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When China’s Chang’e 3 mission successfully landed a rover on the Moon in 2013 it was the first time a spacecraft had achieved a soft landing on the rock in nearly four decades. The last time NASA performed a Moon landing was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, and while the United States does have plans to return, it looks like China is going to double up — and potentially triple up — on its lunar excursions before the U.S. can make its return.

The Chinese government just announced that it’s planning on speeding up its roadmap for space exploration, with planned trips to the Moon in 2017 and 2018, and even a Mars probe mission by 2020. China’s Chang’e 5 mission is scheduled for 2017, and will attempt to land a high tech probe on the Moon where it will observe, dig, and collect samples before returning to Earth.

The country’s Chang’e 4 mission is even more interesting, as it will target the far side of the Moon. The plan is to send a lander and rover to the lunar surface where it will perform various tests related to how the Moon actually formed, and how it has changed over the centuries. Chang’e 4 is slated for sometime in 2018, which is also around the time India plans to send its second lunar lander up.

Meanwhile, the United States has several orbiter missions in the works, but not much in the way of actual landing plans. NASA’s Constellation Program would have seen the return of astronauts to the Moon and eventually Mars, but the entire program was scrapped in 2009 by Congress.