India put the Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft into lunar orbit in 2008, a mission with a NASA payload that helped confirm the presence of water on the moon. It plans a moon landing in a few years' time, and a manned mission as early as 2020 – roughly the same timetable as China.
Japan is also mulling a moonshot, and has branched out into other space exploration, such as the recent Hayabusa mission to an asteroid. Its last lunar orbiter shared the moon with China's first in 2007.
Both Japan's and India's recent missions have been plagued by glitches and technical problems, however, while China's have gone relatively smoothly.
Mr. Lele said the most significant aspect of the Chang'e 2 mission was the attempt at a 9.5-mile-high orbit, a difficult feat. India's own lunar orbiter descended to about 60 miles in 2008, he said, but was forced to return to a more stable, 125-mile-high orbit.
A low orbit will allow for better scouting of future landing sites, said Lele. "They [the Chinese] will require huge amounts of data on landing grounds," said Lele. "A moon landing hasn't been attempted since the cold war."
During the famed 1969 Apollo 11 manned mission to the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong had to take control of the lander in the last moments of descent to avoid large moon boulders strewn around the landing site. China hopes to avoid any such last-minute surprises with better reconnaissance photos, which would allow them to see moon features such as rocks as small as one-meter across, according to Chinese media.
Meanwhile, some have pointed out that China's moonshot, like all space programs, has valuable potential military offshoots. China's space program is controlled by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which is steadily gaining experience in remote communication and measurement, missile technology, and antisatellite warfare through missions like Chang'e 2.