Dear readers,

Like it or not, as things stand now, it's China's moon. Decades after the U.S. and the old U.S.S.R. gave up their lunar ambitions, China has gone roaring ahead, scoring its latest success this week when its Chang'e 5 lunar spacecraft thumped down in central Mongolia, bringing home the first lunar samples since the Soviets' Luna 24 mission in 1976.

Chang'e 5 is the fifth in a lunar winning streak for China. In 2007 and 2010, Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 successfully executed lunar orbital missions. In 2013, Chang'e 3 landed on the moon and deployed a small rover. And in 2019 Chang'e 4 did the same, becoming the first spacecraft to touch down on the far side of the moon.

Chang'e 5 was a much harder mission, involving a multi-stage spacecraft that didn't just land on the moon but lifted off from it. Launched on Nov. 23, the craft arrived in lunar orbit on Nov. 28. A descent stage separated from the main body of the orbiting spacecraft and touched down on the surface on Dec. 1. While there, it collected 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of lunar rocks and soil and transferred them to an ascent vehicle, which lifted off and rendezvoused with the orbiting portion of the spacecraft. A return and reentry portion of the vehicle then brought the samples back to Earth, landing on Dec. 16 at 1:00 p.m. EST.

The lunar material comes from a smooth volcanic plain in the moon's Ocean of Storms with comparatively few craters. That indicates it is younger—covered by lava flows less than 2 billion years ago, which counts as relatively recent as these things go. The samples brought back by NASA's six Apollo landings were about twice as old. Geologists are anxious to have a look at the comparatively pristine material the Chinese mission collected. "These samples will be a treasure trove!” Brad Jolliff, director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Associated Press in an email.

China is planning more lunar missions, as well as an Earth-orbiting space station and an eventual crewed landing in the late 2020s or 2030s. The U.S. is aiming for its own crewed lunar landing by 2024—a date that is almost certain to slip by at least a few years given that the requisite lunar lander has not yet even been designed, much less built and tested. Whether American astronauts or Chinese taikonauts leave the next prints on the lunar surface, it is a certainty that today at least, it is China that is staking the most ambitious lunar claims.

—Jeffrey Kluger

Saturn and Jupiter Conjunction
NASA/Bill Ingalls

Earth and sky can combine for some spectacular imagery. A shot captured on Dec. 17 by NASA photographer Bill Ingalls shows the Washington Monument framed by the moon on the left and the pinpoints of Jupiter and Saturn on the right (about halfway as high in the picture as the moon) as the two planets approach their Dec. 21 conjunction (see more below).


The little space station that could

NASA never tires of touting efforts like the International Space Station (ISS); the Artemis program, which aims to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024; and the commercial crew program, which has already seen SpaceX fly two crews to the ISS. But less-touted—or at least less appreciated—is the Gateway spacecraft, a critical part of the return-to-the-moon effort.

From the moment Artemis was announced, NASA made it clear that it wanted to avoid the short-stay, Apollo-style flags-and-footprints model. Rather, the U.S. wants to establish a long-term presence on and around the moon. For the around part, the space agency envisions a small space station—about one-sixth the size of the ISS—dubbed Gateway, which would remain in permanent orbit around the moon and serve as a way station for arriving and departing astronauts. Critics have dismissed the idea as costly and unnecessary, but NASA has remained committed to it.

To get the craft constructed and paid for, the U.S. is reassembling the international coalition that built and operates the ISS. In October, the U.S., Canada and the 22-nation European Space Agency signed the Artemis Accords, ensuring cooperation on the project. Now, as NASA reports, the space agency has inked a separate deal with Canada to provide the Gateway's robotic arm—similar to critical equipment Canada also built for all of the space shuttles and the ISS. For its trouble, Canada gets bragging rights, a central seat at the table and a guarantee of at least two of its astronauts making flights to the lunar vicinity—one going to the Gateway and one, earlier, aboard the Artemis program's first crewed flight around the far side of the moon, set for 2023.

The great conjunction is coming

I don't know where you'll be one hour after sunset on Dec. 21, but I know where I'll be: on the roof of my Manhattan apartment building gazing at the southwest sky to catch one of the greatest cosmic shows in the past 800 years. The spectacle is technically known as a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, when Jupiter, on its inner lane around the sun, catches up with and passes Saturn on its outer one. The two gas giants are often visible with the naked eye even in light-polluted city skies, but when they pass this close to each other—or at least appear to; they will remain hundreds of millions of miles apart—it's nothing short of cosmic eye candy.

As NASA explains, conjunctions aren't that uncommon, occurring about once every 20 years. But it's been 400 years since these two planets drifted this close, and 800 years since the conjunction occurred when Jupiter and Saturn rose and set at night as opposed to daytime, making them visible around the world.

For best viewing, look relatively low in the sky and scan for an exceedingly bright object—Jupiter—and a slightly less bright one above and to the left of it—Saturn. The conjunction will last for a few days, though the planets will drift farther apart each day, so take advantage of the skygazing opportunity while you can. (Try smartphone apps like Sky Guide to help you find the planets.)

A very shaky Mars

The sexiest Mars craft are always the rovers—SUV-size cosmic cars that go rolling (albeit very slowly) across the Martian landscape. Not as well recognized are robots like the InSight lander, a stationary probe that touched down on Mars in November of 2018 to study the planet's internal structure in greater detail than any craft has before. This week, the less-ballyhooed mission began to pay off, returning a trove of data about the frequency, depth and severity of quakes beneath the planet's surface.

As a release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains, InSight has found that "marsquakes" are exceedingly common, with the planet sometimes shaking as often as once every day. Still, the tremors are gentle, with no quake exceeding a magnitude 3.7. The planet does settle down sometimes too. In June, the quaking stopped entirely, with only five occurring since—all during or after September. But that quiescence could be a mirage.

The near absence of quakes has occurred during the windiest period of the Martian year, and the gusts and gales shake not only InSight's seismometer, but also the ground itself, perhaps masking ongoing marsquakes. It also appears that marsquakes are deeper than earthquakes, with the surface waves that typically run through the crust of our planet during a tremor missing altogether on Mars. Researchers believe the lack of waves might be linked to the extensive fracturing of the top 10 km (6 mi) of the Martian surface, which scatters and breaks up the rippling.

Is Russia readying for space wars?

Nobody expects space soldiers to fight cosmic wars any time soon, but that doesn't mean a shooting war in Earth orbit is off the table—and Moscow is making it clear it is planning for just such a possibility. As Space.com reports, on Dec. 15, Russia test-launched what's known as a "direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT)" missile—which as its name suggests is a bit of ordnance that could fly to low-Earth orbit and blast another nation's satellite out of the sky.

The test was the third such bit of Russian cosmic bellicosity in the last year. In April, Moscow tested another DA-ASAT missile, and in July it tested a "co-orbital ASAT," during which its Cosmos 2543 satellite cozied up close to another Russian satellite and released a payload that could serve as a so-called "kinetic weapon"—a fancy way of saying it would slam into and destroy the target spacecraft.

The U.S. is none too pleased with the cosmic shenanigans. "Russia publicly claims it is working to prevent the transformation of outer space into a battlefield, yet at the same time Moscow continues to weaponize space by developing and fielding on-orbit and ground-based capabilities that seek to exploit U.S. reliance on space-based systems," said U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the U.S. Space Command, in a statement.

Protecting the Apollo landing sites

Nothing much has changed on the moon in the near half-century since humans last visited. In the airless, waterless, windless lunar environment, every footprint and tire tread left during NASA's six landing missions remains unchanged—and Congress aims to keep things that way. As SpaceNews reports, on Dec. 16, the House passed the already-approved Senate bill known as the “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act," intended to keep the half-dozen American landing sites untouched by future lunar visitors.

There's no way of policing who does what on the moon when robotic or human visitors next arrive, but Congress hopes to enforce the no-go rules via incentives rather than penalties. Companies that participate in NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program—a public-private partnership similar to the commercial crew program—must comply, for instance. "The bill offers a carrot, rather than a stick," said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), in remarks. "If the private sector wants to leverage the vast experience and resources that NASA offers, they simply must abide by NASA’s own internal policies.”

Protecting some lunar landing sites will be easier than shielding others. The Apollo 11 astronauts explored so little ground that if the landing site were a baseball field and the lunar module touched down on the pitcher's mound, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin barely made it out of the infield. The Apollo 17 crew, however—with the aid of their lunar-roving moon car—at one point drove 12.1 km (7.5 mi) from their lander.

The Space Newsletter will be taking the next two weeks off and will return on Jan. 8. Have a safe and happy holiday season.


TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. It is edited by Alex Fitzpatrick.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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