Monday, July 15, 2024

A rock has arrived from the far side of the moon, but US researchers face a major problem

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Maria Gill
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STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images The rock from the far side of the moon has arrived, but American researchers have a big problem.

STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

The rock from the far side of the moon has arrived, but American researchers have a big problem.

Space – They’ve arrived. Rocks from the far side of the Moon, the target of China’s Chang’e 6 space probe, have returned to Earth for study. Exactly 1,935.3 grams of our natural satellite’s debris landed in its capsule on June 25, before being transported, within a few days, to Beijing, to the headquarters of the Chinese space agency CNSA. For scientists, the adventure has only just begun.

So the Chinese authorities are calling on researchers of all nationalities to come forward to obtain a rock extract, and then share their findings. What a potential treasure for astronomers, geologists or any lover of the mystery: it is simply the first time that a piece of the far side of the Moon, the part we never see and whose properties are still unknown, has been placed within human reach. . Well… if you’re not from the United States, as reported. News agency.

In fact, the American scientific community is the only one in the world that currently has no right to approach the precious relics. Any request for an extract, at the CNSA’s request from interested institutes, is doomed to fail. A decision taken by the Chinese authorities in the midst of a trade and diplomatic standoff with the United States? Not exactly.

Wolf’s Mod bans (almost) everything.

In fact, things are initially stalled on the American side, all because of the “Wolf Amendment”. This text, voted in 2011 on the initiative of Republican Representative Frank Wolf, prevents the US space agency (NASA) from allocating funds for cooperation with any Chinese agency, without first obtaining the approval of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the US federal police.

The stated goal of this legislation, which has been widely criticized since its inception, is to slow China’s progress in space technology as much as possible. It’s not about preventing them from recovering moon rocks, or even sending rockets to Mars, but about countering their military objectives. Missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles have a lot in common, and what Wolf, like the proponents of the bill (which has been voted on every year since), disputes is that China’s space program is a screen for their military advances.

But there is. Besides the fact that this could have very clear implications for American research itself (as it does here, if American researchers can’t get access to moon rocks), it’s particularly frustrating in the case of this mission. In 2019, with congressional approval, NASA partnered with China on the Chang’e 4 lunar mission, a lunar robot that is just a precursor to Chang’e 6.

NASA, for its part, has shown great motivation to be able to study these rock extracts. Since December 2023, it has been urging its employees to apply to be among the lucky ones, explaining that it has provided the US authorities with all the necessary justifications to authorize this collaboration. But China, which is also playing the openness card, makes it clear that the Wolf Amendment is an obstacle and therefore rejects the US candidacy. At the moment, there is no lunar package for researchers across the Atlantic.

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