Although NASA’s chief scientist expressed hope for future exchange of Apollo-era lunar specimens with those retrieved by China’s Chang’e-5 mission, the agency presently has no intentions to do so. At the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group’s annual conference on August 31, Jim Green noted that limits in US legislation on bilateral collaboration between NASA and Chinese companies had ruled out any exchange of lunar samples for the time being.
“At this time, there are no intentions to form a bilateral agreement with China on sample exchange,” he added, referencing the Wolf Amendment, a decade-old clause in annual spending bills that prohibits such collaboration.
Green was replying to inquiries about such trade from scientists in attendance at the gathering. Chang’e-5, China’s first lunar sample return mission, returned around 1.7 kg of material from a region close to the volcanic complex Mons Rümker located in Oceanus Procellarum in December of last year. Scientists are interested in the material since it is newer than samples returned by previous Apollo missions as well as Soviet-era Luna robotic sample return spaceships. Chinese officials announced after the landing that they would be willing to exchange some samples with scientists from other countries.
Samples from asteroid and lunar missions have been traded in the past. The US and the Soviet Union exchanged a modest number of lunar samples from their flights in the 1970s. Green stated that NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA had reached an arrangement in which JAXA will provide samples from the asteroid Ryugu, which were returned by Hayabusa2 mission, in exchange for materials brought back by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from the asteroid Bennu.
According to Green, the Wolf Amendment limits but does not outright ban interaction between NASA and Chinese organizations. “Over time, concerted efforts can and have been made” to gain White House and congressional permission for collaboration, he added. “I would say that we have measures in place, and we will employ those tools as we move forward.”
During the 6 Apollo missions which landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972, NASA recovered 382 kilos of lunar material. The next lunar samples will most likely come from Artemis 3 landing mission, which is expected to launch in 2024.
Later in the conference, veteran lunar scientist Jim Head inquired if NASA was considering any robotic lunar sample return missions, maybe as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which allows NASA to buy payload delivery services from privately-owned landers.
Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator in charge of the exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, responded, “We’ve labeled that an expanded capability for CLPS since the beginning.” However, he stated that accomplishing this would be more challenging than getting landers to endure the two-week lunar night, which is a considerable technical problem in and of itself.