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After conducting three successful robotic lunar missions between 2007 and 2013, China’s blossoming moon exploration program appears to be entering a slower, more tentative phase. The nation had intended to loft its Chang’e 5 spacecraft on a Long March 5 rocket by the end of the year, to land on and retrieve samples from the lunar surface. But a July launch failure of another Long March 5 has seemingly deferred those efforts for months—perhaps years. With the Chang’e 5 sample-return mission now unofficially but apparently on hold, China may instead next use a different rocket booster to send a lunar lander and rover to the moon’s far side in 2018. That separate mission is called Chang’e 4, and was built as a backup to China’s Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu moon rover that successfully reached the moon in December 2013.

Although disappointing for the China National Space Administration (CNSA), which hopes to eventually dispatch many more robotic probes to the moon and perhaps even human missions to its water ice–rich polar regions, the delay and reshuffling could ultimately prove beneficial by allowing more time for international collaboration to emerge on lunar science and exploration.

Many other nations—including, perhaps, the U.S.—are gearing up for their own visits to the moon in coming years, offering China plentiful potential partners in lunar exploration. More than 40 years have passed since NASA’s Apollo astronauts retrieved hundreds of pounds of moon rocks from their sorties on the lunar surface. And the last time any samples at all were returned to Earth was 1976, via some 170 grams sent back from the Soviet Luna 24 lander. New samples could be a scientific bonanza for the global lunar research community, but only if China proves willing to share.

Talks on potential collaborations and the sharing of lunar samples are already underway between Europe and China as well as early discussions involving China and Russia.

What about the US? To read more, click here.
Category: Science