Nasa has announced it is collaborating with its Chinese counterpart on a lunar mission, amid US warnings against sharing technology with the country.
The US space agency has been in discussions with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) to collaborate on lunar landing research after gaining approval from Congress.
The collaboration requires Nasa to navigate a strict legal framework in the US aimed at preventing a technology transfer to China and comes during a period of strained relations between the two countries.
It follows reports that the US government is on the verge of indicting the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei for allegedly stealing trade secrets from US companies.
The collaboration between Nasa and the CNSA follows China’s successful mission to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon – the first country to achieve such a feat.
The probe, Chang’e-4, carried a set of instruments aiming to take detailed measurements of the terrain as well as conducting a biological experiment.
In a statement, Nasa said it planned to observe "a signature of the landing plume" of Chang’e-4 using its lunar orbiter with the aim of understanding more about the Moon’s surface.
The announcement confirmed a similar statement made earlier in the week by Wu Yanhua, the deputy chief commander of China Lunar Exploration Program.
NASA shared information from a US satellite while China told the Americans about the latitude, longitude and time of the landing "in a timely manner," he said.
The hope was that NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) could observe the historic touchdown of the Chinese lander on January 3.
NASA provided the planned orbit path of LRO to China, but it turned out the spacecraft was not in the right place at the right time.
"For a number of reasons, NASA was not able to phase LRO’s orbit to be at the optimal location during the landing, however NASA was still interested in possibly detecting the plume well after the landing," the agency said in a statement.
"Science gathered about how lunar dust is ejected upwards during a spacecraft’s landing could inform future missions and how they arrive on the lunar surface."
The research is important for Nasa’s ambitions to return to the Moon, with missions scheduled for as early as next year.
The US campaign to return to the Moon, the first in more than 40 years, has been brought forward by President Donald Trump, who has pushed for commercial and international funding to replace federal for international ventures.
NASA’s lunar orbiter will pass over the Chang’e 4 landing site on January 31 and will snap pictures, as it did for the Chang’e 3 in 2013.
The agency said the two countries will share any significant findings from the cooperation with the global research community in February at a United Nations space gathering in Austria.
The collaboration requires Nasa to make assurances to Congress that no US technology will be transferred to China.
NASA said in its Friday statement that all the agency’s data associated with the collaboration are publicly available. It added that in accordance with US administration and congressional guidance, "NASA’s cooperation with China is transparent, reciprocal and mutually beneficial."
China, which has long been excluded from international space projects, saw the offer to collaborate as a “great opportunity”.
“This time, we have such a great opportunity … we are willing to work with them,” Wu Weiren, chief scientist of the lunar programme, told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV this week.
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