Photo taking during Chang’e-5 surface sampling.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Back in December 2020, China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft returned Moon samples, hauling them back to Earth from the Ocean of Storms.

Fast forward to today.

The delicate nature of Chinese/NASA cooperation regarding those Chang’e-5 returned collectibles was discussed by Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division.

Glaze spoke May 13, briefing the Extraterrestrial Materials Analysis Group (ExMAG), a meeting being held this week in Houston, Texas.

Chang’e-5 return capsule holding lunar specimens.
Credit: National Astronomical Observatories, CAS

Limited exemption

Key points that Glaze spoke to:

China opened applications for access to Chang’e-5 lunar samples to international scientists in late 2023.

In November 2023, NASA chief Bill Nelson certified to Congress NASA’s intent to allow NASA-funded researchers to apply to the China National Space Agency (CNSA) for access to the Chang’e-5 returned specimens.

What is termed a “limited exemption” under the Wolf Amendment is advancing NASA coordination with U.S. researchers that applied for the Chang’e-5 samples.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects Chang’e-5 lunar sample return capsule.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

The Wolf Amendment was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2011, shaped by then-U.S. Representative Frank Wolf. Its language prohibits NASA from using government funds to engage in direct, bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government and China-affiliated organizations from its activities without explicit authorization from the U.S. Congress, even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Application process

Glaze noted that NASA is aware that as part of the application process, the CNSA recently interviewed the international loan applicants, and U.S. researchers were interviewed virtually.

A second opportunity for international proposers for Chang’e-5 samples is expected in the summer of 2024.

Artwork depicts Chang’e-6 now in Moon orbit.
Image credit: CNSA/CGTN/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Glaze advised that NASA is aware of the U.S. science communities’ interest in access to further samples – such as from the Chang’e-6 lunar sampling mission now underway – and will pursue this in the future based on outcomes of the Chang’e-5 lunar sample process.

Far side samples

After its May 3 launch, Chang’e-6 performed a braking maneuver and is now circling the Moon.

The 8.2 metric ton Chang’e-6 is targeted for a touchdown in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the lunar far side. The overall mission spacecraft consists of four components: an orbiter, a lander, an ascender and a reentry module.

Image credit: Xingguo Zeng, et al.

If all goes to plan, within 48 hours after Chang’e-6 landing its robotic arm is to be extended, then scoop up rocks and soil from the lunar surface, as well as perform drilling duties to probe below the lunar topside.

Up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of lunar bits is to be collected, stashed and packed in a vacuum-sealed metal container inside an ascender.

The ascender then rockets off the Moon and auto-docks with the Chang’e-6 orbiter circling the Moon.

Following a roughly five-day journey from the Moon, a returner capsule, stuffed with lunar samples, is to parachute into a pre-determined site in Inner Mongolia.

The entire flight — from Earth launch to return sample capsule landing back on Earth — is expected to last about 53 days.

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