China collects lunar samples, Wolf may not share with NASA due to modification

Workers at the landing site of the return capsule of the Chang'e 5 probe in China in Siziwang Banner, China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on December 17, 2020.
Zoom in / Workers at the landing site of the return capsule of the Chang’e 5 probe in China in Siziwang Banner, China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on December 17, 2020.

Xinhua / Ren Junchuan with the help of Getty Images

China’s increasingly ambitious space program completed the 23-day mission on Wednesday, culminating in the return of about 2kg of rock from the moon. In the final phase of the mission, a spacecraft carrying a lunar cargo landed in Mongolia and was restored by Chinese troops.

This Chang’e 5 mission is a major success for China and its space program, and only the third nation – with the U.S. and 1970s robot program after the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union in the 1970s with the robot program – will return from the moon .

At a post-landing press conference, Chinese officials said they would imitate the United States and the Soviet Union by sharing samples with international partners, including the United Nations. However, sharing the material with the United States seems unlikely because of the Wolf Amendment, a law passed by Congress in 2011 that prohibits direct cooperation with China.

“The Chinese government is ready to share samples, including data, with other like-minded institutions from other countries,” said Wu Yanhua, vice president of China’s National Space Administration. He then, however, called the Wolf Amendment passed by Congress “unfortunate” and indicated that direct cooperation with NASA was unlikely to materialize.

Some U.S. space officials, including Charles Bolden, a former NASA administrator, have called for the Wolf Amendment to be revoked, and he said the space agency should allow it to work with China on current and future issues. However, the U.S. Congress continued to block this due to concerns about the possible theft of U.S. technology that could arise from such partnerships. It is unclear whether the Biden administration will review these rules.

Now that this mission is complete, China intends to further expand its lunar program. Then, a few years later, the Chang’e 6 mission seeks to bring back 2kg of rock from the south corner of the Moon and examine the distribution of water ice in the region. Future missions will include landings, bases, and additional opportunities for scientific research.

At a news conference, Wu said the country would eventually send people – he calls it talonauts in China – to the moon, but did not set a date for the mission. To achieve this, the country still needs to develop a number of technologies. At the same time, he said that when China really goes to the moon, it needs to do research and benefit humanity, not as part of some kind of “space race” like the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

NASA is also interested in returning to the moon with humans in the 2020s. Whether China has a growing interest in the Earth’s companion, whether it encourages Congress or the Biden government to fully fund the ambitions of NASA’s Artemis program, will only become clear until the end of the next budget cycles.