Technology & Science
As China Celebrates 10 Years on the Moon, NASA Reaches Out for Chang’e 5 Moon Samples
While geopolitics may constrain collaboration, for now, the future of space science is very promising.

December 14, 2023

The rabbit who has seen the most stars landed on the moon for 10 years

It was December 14, 2013, when China marked its name in lunar history. The Chang’e-3 probe made a successful soft landing on the moon’s surface, beginning a detailed survey of this enigmatic celestial body. This achievement positioned China as the third country with the technology for extraterrestrial soft landing and rover exploration.

The landing site, later named “Guanghan Palace”- known as the Moon Palace and the home of the Chinese Moon Goddess in legends, became home to ‘Yutu’. It was China’s first lunar rover, tasked with studying the moon’s surface. It was a myth-turned-reality, intertwining ancient lore with modern science.

Yutu and Chang’e-3 lander take pictures of each other on the lunar surface.

In one adorable image, the Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover even snapped a selfie together against the desolate beauty of the moonscape. During its operation, the rover overcame damage and extreme temperatures fluctuating over 500 degrees Celsius to analyze lunar geology and carry out close-up photography. Yutu’s suites of instruments revealed a thinner lunar regolith and more varied subsurface structure than expected. It traveled a distance of approximately 114 meters on the lunar surface. Although it was only designed to operate for 3 months, the Yutu persevered for a remarkable 972 days before finally powering down. But the story didn’t end there.

The Yutu rover issued a farewell on social media, ‘Good night, there are still so many questions I want to know the answers to, but I’m already the rabbit that has seen the most stars…’

Fast forward to 2019, and Chang’e-4 did what no other mission had done before – landing on the far side of the Moon with the Yutu-2 rover. One of its significant findings was the discovery of lunar mantle material, crucial for understanding the Moon’s formation and evolution. Using its ground-penetrating lunar radar, Yutu 2 created the first-ever geological profile of the moon’s subsurface down to 500 meters deep and sent back valuable data on lunar soil composition and space environment. By studying wheel-surface interactions, researchers found the mechanical properties of lunar soil in the rover’s landing region to be similar to Earth’s dry sand and sandy soil, with better load-bearing characteristics than typical Apollo-era moon soil samples. It continues functioning today as the longest-working lunar lander, traversing nearly 1500 meters.

Yutu-2 lunar rover

In 2020, Chang’e-5 returned the first lunar samples retrieved in over 40 years. The 1731 grams of basalt and dust will help determine the Moon’s precise age and formation history in China’s advanced new Sample-analysis Laboratory.

Chang’e-5 return capsule touches down on Earth with lunar sample

With missions like Chang’e-6, 7, and 8 on the horizon, the journey of the Yutu continues, carrying the ambition of manned lunar exploration. China is now preparing crewed lunar landings using its new heavy-lift Long March 9 rocket and complex sample return missions from Mars by around 2030.

As we continue to witness this cosmic romance together. The moon, Mars, and beyond.

Nasa urges researchers to reach out for China’s Chang’e 5 moon samples, sidestepping US ban

For years, a law called the Wolf Amendment has severely restricted collaboration between America’s NASA and China’s CNSA. But NASA just made a surprising move. They’re actually urging their researchers to apply for samples from the Chang’e 5 mission that happened in 2020.

This year, on October 1, China announced that they’re accepting research proposals from international scientists to apply for the Chang’e 5 lunar sample. it’s the first time they’ve done this, and scientists are excited. James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University, says “There has been great enthusiasm internationally to study the samples.”

Lunar soil retrieved by China’s Chang’e 5 mission.

NASA recognizes the “unique value” of these specimens and has allowed their researchers to submit requests during China’s latest application round. They are calling it an exception to bilateral restrictions, and want to ensure equal research opportunities as foreign institutions. A flood of proposals is expected before the December 22 deadline.

Vials of lunar soil brought back from the moon by China’s Chang’e-5 probe are seen at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IGGCAS) on August 26, 2021 in Beijing, China.

Even though there are still some policy hurdles, Dr. Head is hopeful that this could be the start of“an era of various levels of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.”  

But there’s more. China plans to launch Chang’e-6 around 2024 to collect the first-ever samples from the far side of the Moon. According to NASA’s email, studying these could be even more enlightening. Meanwhile, Chinese and American space agencies are also working on separate missions to collect and bring back samples from Mars, which could happen around 2030. However, an independent review that came out in September showed that NASA’s budget and timeline for their Mars program are “unrealistic” and challenging. But on the whole, while geopolitics may constrain collaboration, for now, the future of space science is very promising.

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The China Academy
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