World / Science & Health

NASA and China collaborate on Moon mission


The space agencies of the United States and China are coordinating efforts on moon exploration, NASA said Friday as it navigates a strict legal framework aimed at preventing technology transfer to China.

“With the required approval from Congress, NASA has been in discussions with China to explore the possibility of observing a signature of the landing plume of their lunar lander, Chang’e 4, using our @NASAMoon spacecraft’s instrument,” NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said on Twitter.

Zurbuchen’s tweet confirmed a similar statement made Monday by the deputy chief commander of the China Lunar Exploration Program, Wu Yanhua.

NASA shared information from a U.S. satellite, while China told the Americans about the latitude, longitude and time of the landing “in a timely manner,” he said.

The hope was that NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter could observe the historic touchdown of the Chinese lander on Jan. 3.

NASA provided the LRO’s planned orbit path to China, but it turned out the spacecraft was not in the right place at the right time.

“For a number of reasons, NASA was not able to phase LRO’s orbit to be at the optimal location during the landing, however NASA was still interested in possibly detecting the plume well after the landing,” the agency said in a statement.

“Science gathered about how lunar dust is ejected upwards during a spacecraft’s landing could inform future missions and how they arrive on the lunar surface.”

Such observations could help astronauts prepare for future missions to the moon.

NASA’s lunar orbiter will pass over the Chang’e 4 landing site on Jan. 31 and will snap pictures, as it did for the Chang’e 3 in 2013.

The agency said significant findings resulting from the cooperation will be shared with the global research community in February at a United Nations space gathering in Austria.

Since 2011, Congress has barred NASA or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from using federal funds “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.”

Exceptions are possible, but NASA must convince Congress and the FBI that the activity would “pose no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications to China or a Chinese-owned company.”

NASA said in its Friday statement that “all NASA data associated with this activity are publicly available” and “NASA’s cooperation with China is transparent, reciprocal and mutually beneficial.”