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The container loaded with moon samples retrieved by the Chang’e 5 probe arrives in Beijing on December 17, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

China space agency invites international research on Chang’e 5 moon rocks

  • The National Space Administration’s regulation on how samples will be managed encourages global scientific cooperation
  • Foreign diplomats visit facilities and overseas agencies thanked for their help in tracking lunar probe
China says it welcomes international research on the lunar samples retrieved by last month’s Chang’e 5 mission, which scientists hope will shed new light on the history and evolution of the Earth as well as the moon.

The China National Space Administration released a new regulation on Monday which said it “encourages international joint research work on space science based on the lunar samples”. Foreign diplomats were given a tour of the storage and research facilities for the samples, set up last month by the National Astronomical Observatories (NAO).

The space agency also awarded commemorative plates to its counterparts in the European Union, Argentina, Pakistan, as well as the Namibia Ministry of Higher Education, Training and Innovation, for their tracking support and collaboration in the Chang’e 5 mission.

Commemorative plates are presented to representatives from the international agencies which provided support to the Chang'e 5 lunar mission. Photo: Xinhua

The Chang‘e 5 probe completed a 23-day space mission in December and returned with the first moon samples in 44 years – the third country to do so, after the US and the Soviet Union. The latest 1,700 grams (3.74lbs) of rocks and dust were taken from a younger rock surface, which scientists hope will reveal information about the moon’s recent history.

Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the agency’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Centre, said international cooperation had featured in China’s lunar mission as well as its Mars exploration and satellite project.

Pei said the country’s future lunar and interplanetary exploration missions would be more open, and further international cooperation would be encouraged.

“We are still in the pre-processing stage of the lunar samples, including sample unsealing, preparation and the establishment of archives,” Pei said, according to state news agency Xinhua. About 80 per cent of the samples will be used for scientific research, while the rest will be preserved in anticipation of future improvements in research technology.

The regulation also said the samples would be divided into four general purposes – permanent storage, backup permanent storage, research, and public exhibitions and education purposes. The NAO will take six months, from December 19, to process the samples based on these criteria and publish relevant information.

Diplomats and representatives from international organisations with the Chang’e 5 display at the National Astronomical Observatories of China in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Borrowing periods for research samples and public education samples will in principle not exceed one year and two months, respectively, the regulation stipulates.

The next stage of the Chang’e lunar programme aims to land astronauts on the moon by 2030, with eventual plans for a permanent research station on its south pole.

But China’s space ambitions extend beyond the moon – with a probe on its way to Mars after it was launched in July last year, and preparations well in hand for a space station to be operational next year. The core module for the station will be launched in the spring, using a Long March 5 rocket which is in the last phase of preparation for the mission.

The United States has also started on an ambitious plan to send crew to the moon in 2024. Advisers to incoming president Joe Biden have urged cooperation with China in space exploration, though he views Beijing as top competitor to the US on almost every front.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Global research sought for moon rocks