While the US space program is focused on Mars and the atmosphere around the moon, China's space program made its way to NASA's old stomping grounds: the surface of the moon. The successful landing of Chang'e 3 lunar lander and its robotic rover, Yutu, on the the moon Dec. 14 at 8:11 a.m. EST makes China the third country to ever make a viable soft landing (as opposed to a crash landing where spacecrafts are rendered unoperable) on the moon.

During the mission on the moon's Bay of Rainbows plain, Yutu will gather data related to what's below the moon's surface using radar technology. China is also reportedly working on a larger mission to bring back samples and rocks from the moon before 2020.

Though with the launch of the LADEE spacecraft this September NASA remains interested in scientific research on Earth's satellite, the head of NASA did say earlier this year that NASA is not planning any more human lunar landings. With NASA's limited budget to devote to lunar projects, the modern space race return to the moon has become privatized. The big buzz is around the Google Lunar Xprize, which will award $30 million to the first privately funded research team to successfully land a robot on the moon, explore it for a set distance, and share HD video from the moon's surface by Dec. 31, 2015.


The most recent lunar soft landing was the Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976, while the US hasn't returned since its 1972 Apollo 17 manned mission, which included three separate moonwalks studying a lunar area believed to be linked to volcanic activity. Watch a video compilation of images from Change'e 3's descent into the moon's atmosphere after the break.