China caught between a moon rock and a hard place

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Beijing’s lunar rock diplomacy could break the West’s ‘tech Iron Curtain’ that excludes China from space program cooperation

by Frank Chen – Asia  Time

A giant Chinese flag is displayed next to the Chang’e-5’s return capsule containing about 2kg of lunar samples, after it landed in Inner Mongolia on December 17. Photo: Xinhua

After China became the third country to land on the moon and bring back specimens, the fuss about the lunar rocks has come down to earth.

This comes after China’s Space Administration decided, to the disappointment of many space fans, to postpone indefinitely its nationwide exhibition of the moon samples brought by the Chang’e-5 lunar probe on December 17. Officials blamed “ground transport, logistical and security issues.”

Netizens wonder if these rocks, grains and dust, having made the perilous 20-day, 380,000-kilometer trip, are now stuck in Beijing’s notorious red tape and bureaucracy.

Chinese universities and research institutes are jostling for some small portions of the two kilos of soil samples to study. Now, it appears that an unlikely bidder may get hold of a decent amount ahead of academia: the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Right after the Chang’e-5’s return capsule parachuted into the Inner Mongolia wilderness, a WeChat account maintained by the ministry’s international cooperation division floated the idea of donating some grams to the United States, European Union, Japan and other countries with lunar exploration programs.

Beijing is well-placed to flaunt its latest achievement, which has catapulted it into the elite club of space superpowers.

Beijing is particularly eager to trumpet its newly acquired space capabilities in front of an American audience, in the world’s first such lunar return mission in 44 years.

Beijing may also want to reciprocate NASA’s gifting “some motes of lunar dust” to the Chinese National Astronomical Observatory in 1978, right before Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter agreed to establish diplomatic ties.

Back then, Washington’s donation of the tiny lunar soil samples was interpreted by some Chinese scientists as “humiliating” and as Carter’s subtle reminder to Deng of America’s sheer technological supremacy, when China had just put its first rudimentary satellite into its orbit a few years earlier.

Still, China News Service revealed that Chinese astronomers and astrophysicists spent decades digging into the American sample that weighed merely a gram and produced more than 40 research papers on its radiation and spectrum, chemical composition, lunar geology and even possible lunar origin.

Fast forward to 2020, discussions about if Beijing should gift back and how much lunar soil should be given are trending on news portals and online forums such as those managed by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

Zheng Yongchun, a lead researcher with the National Astronomical Observatory, wrote on his blog that the less soil to be donated to the US, the better.

“We deliberately chose a less-known locus for our Chang’e-5 mission that was very far away from the places included in NASA’s Apollo program,” said Zheng.

He said the site was on a large, dark, basaltic plain of the lunar mare.

“We dug up samples that had never been reached or surveyed before, so Chinese scientists should first be guaranteed enough soil to do our research,” he said.

He added that of the two kilos, half a kilo was obtained by drilling deep into the lunar surface.

Ouyang Ziyuan, China’s top astrochemistry scientist who led a team that has examined the American sample since the 1980s, is now Cheng’e-5’s chief consultant. He told Xinhua he was thrilled to be able to study lunar samples retrieved by China’s indigenous talent with a decent amount of lunar material, not just a few “salt grains” from NASA.

Citing the National Space Administration, Xinhua reported that one kilo of sample will be initially stored in pure nitrogen to shield it from the external environment in a purpose-built lab at the National Astronomical Observatory in Beijing while state leaders and scientists work out a detailed research, distribution and donation plan.

The other half will be kept in Shaoshan, in the central Hunan province, the birthplace of deceased revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.

There are legal and political stumbling blocks before Chinese lunar samples can travel to the US. American laws, known as the Chinese exclusion policy introduced in 2011, forbid NASA from launching any cooperation or exchange program with its Chinese counterparts.

And, with bilateral ties on the rocks, Beijing may also want to wait out the perceived as hostile Donald Trump administration and announce the donation as a “national present” after Joe Biden is sworn in next month.

National Space Administration deputy director Wu Yanhua said at a press conference on the Chang’e-5’s successful landing that it would be up to the US government to change its exclusion policy before any donations or exchanges could be made.

Previously, NBC quoted an anonymous NASA official as saying that he would welcome a donation of “fresh” lunar samples as the last time the US retrieved lunar material was in 1972 in the Apollo 17 mission.

NASA also tweeted when the Chang’e-5 blasted off on November 23 that “With Chang’e-5, China has launched an effort to join the US & the former Soviet Union in obtaining lunar samples. We hope China shares its data with the global scientific community to enhance our understanding of the moon like our Apollo missions did & the Artemis program will.”

Similar suggestions have also been made to share samples with the EU as a gesture of goodwill and break the West’s “tech Iron Curtain,” as countries on both sides of the Atlantic appear to be closing ranks to lock China out of their joint research and space programs.

There could be other hurdles. Reports have indicated that the heat generated by friction during the Chang’e-5’s re-entry into the atmosphere could have “altered” the original composition and properties of the samples. Xinhua reported that the return capsule pierced the atmosphere at 11 kilometers per second.

Professor Yung Kai-leung, whose team at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University developed and manufactured the Chang’e-5’s lunar surface rock automatic sampling, packing and sealing system, said that collecting a large amount of samples by robotic means was unprecedented and that heat protection during re-entry was part of the key design parameters.

“The system required a very high level of precision and reliability, as our system needed to withstand the huge impact, shock and heat during lift-offs, landings and reentry, and it needed to operate on the sun-facing side of the moon where the ground temperatures could hit 110 degrees Celsius.

“The return capsule conducted sophisticated maneuvering during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere to reduce speed and thus the heat generated. Judging from the data fed by the ground control in Beijing, the container remained sound and intact,” said the scholar.

Yung added that study of the samples by Chinese and overseas scientists in the years to come will prove the quality of the samples.

 

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