No plans by NASA to exchange lunar samples with China


At present, NASA has no plans to exchange any of its Apollo-era lunar samples with China’s Chang’e-5 mission. This is even though the agency’s chief scientist did hope for such a trade in the future. On 31st August 2021, Jim Green speaks at the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. Jim says that the restrictions in the U.S. law on bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese associations are ruled out for the time being. This is for any trade of lunar samples between the two countries.

Jim Green says, “at present, there are no plans to set up a bilateral arrangement with China on the exchange of samples.” Jim responds to questions from scientists who attend the meeting about such an exchange.

Following are the details of China’s first lunar sample return mission – Chang’e-5:

  • 7 kilograms of material extracted from a region
  • This is near the volcanic complex Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum
  • The material was bought back in December 2020

The material brought back by the mission is of interest to the scientists since it is comparatively young compared to samples put back by –

  • Earlier Apollo missions
  • Soviet-era Luna robotic sample return spacecraft

NASA has a collection of 382 kilograms of lunar material which is an extract during six Apollo missions. These missions have landed on the moon from 1969 to 1972. The next set of lunar samples is likely to come from the Artemis 3 landing mission. The mission has a schedule no earlier than 2024.

Jim Head (veteran lunar scientist) asks NASA if the agency contemplates any robotic lunar sample return missions. This is under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Under the program, NASA purchases payload delivery services on landers that have commercial operations.

Joel Kearns is the deputy associate administrator for evaluation in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He says, “since the start, we have named that as a superior skill of CLPS.” However, he says that doing this will be more challenging than getting the landers to survive the 2-week long lunar night. Which in itself is a considerable technical task.

Joel adds, “It is one of those things that we need to persuade the CLPS suppliers to approach.” This is while he notes the scientific interest in bringing back lunar samples from various geographies. He then also declines to estimate when a CLPS lunar sample return mission may be possible.

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