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China has compiled the most detailed lunar atlas ever mapped




Moon photograph from Artemis 1

If we want to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, we need more detailed maps than existing options, some of which date back to the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s. After more than a decade of collaboration between more than 100 researchers working at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the latest editions of lunar topography are being rolled out to astronomers and space agencies around the world.

As recently highlighted by Naturethe Geological atlas of the lunar globe includes 12,341 craters, 81 basins, and 17 different rock types found across the entire lunar surface, doubling previous map resolutions to a scale of 1:2,500,000.

[Related: Why do all these countries want to go to the moon right now?]

Although higher accuracy maps are available for areas near Apollo mission landing sites, the US Geological Survey’s original lunar maps generally had a scale of 1:5,000,000. Project co-leader and CAS geochemist Jianzhong Liu explained Nature that “our knowledge of the moon has advanced tremendously, and those maps could no longer meet the needs for future lunar research and exploration.”

Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences via Xinhua/Alamy

To guide lunar mapping into the 21st century, CAS relied heavily on China’s ongoing lunar exploration programs, including the Chang’e-1 mission. Starting in 2007, Chang’e-1’s powerful cameras surveyed the moon’s surface from orbit for two years, along with an interference imaging spectrometer, to identify different types of rocks. Additional data collected by the lunar landers Chang’e-3 (2013) and Chang’e-4 (2019) then helped sharpen these mapping efforts. International projects such as NASA Gravity recovery and interior laboratory (GRAIL) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as India’s Chandrayaan-1 probe, all provided even more valuable topographical information.

The crucial topographical milestone was not an entirely altruistic endeavor, however. While CAS geophysicist Ross Mitchell described the cards as “a resource for the entire world,” he added that “contributing to lunar science is a profound way for China to affirm its potential role as a scientific superpower in the coming decades.”

[Related: Japan and NASA plan a historic lunar RV road trip together.]

The US is also far from the only ones who would like to settle on the moon; both China and Russia hope to arrive there in the mid-2030s with the construction of an international lunar research station near the moon’s south pole. Despite the two nations prior promise To be “open to all interested countries and international partners,” the US is clearly not among the ten other governments currently involved in the project.

China plans to launch its Chang’e-6 spacecraft later this week, which will travel to the far side of the moon as the first of three new missions. In an interview on Monday, NASA administrator Bill Nelson expressed concerns about a possible real estate war on the moon.

Lithographic map of the moon
Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences via Xinhua/Alamy

“I think it is not incomprehensible that China would suddenly say: ‘We are here. Stay out,” Nelson said Yahoo Finance. “That would be very unfortunate – to take what has been happening on planet Earth for years, seize territory and say it’s mine and people are fighting over it.”

But if nothing else, the new cards will soon be available to just about everyone. The Geological Atlas is included in a new book by CAS, Map Quadrilaterals of the geological atlas of the moon, which also includes 30 sector diagrams that take an even closer look at individual lunar regions. The full map resource will also soon be available online to international researchers through a cloud platform called Digital Moon.