In 2013, when China’s Chang’e-3 mission touched down on the moon’s Mare Imbrium — famously known as the “Sea of Rains” — NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was watching from very close by. The orbiter approached the landing site 10 days after the December 14 touchdown and imaged the Chang’e-3 lander and the Yutu “Jade Rabbit” for 36 hours — snapping a dozen photos of their location on the near side of the moon, as reported by NASA at the time.
This year, China has landed another robotic mission on the moon. On January 2, the Chang’e-4 probe became humanity’s first spacecraft to touch down on the so called “dark” side of the moon — or the lunar far side, which always faces away from Earth. At the time of the Chang’e-4 landing, NASA was unfortunately not able to phase the LRO spacecraft stationed in the optimal orbital position to photograph China’s trailblazing probe.
Although LRO’s instruments have been collecting data on the Chang’e-4 moon landing — which is publicly available on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) website — NASA aims to gather even more photos from the Chinese landing site on the far side of the moon. Specifically, the U.S. space agency is interested in imaging the landing plume of the Chang’e-4 lander, even weeks after the historic touchdown.
For this purpose, the space agency has recently held a series of meetings with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) to discuss a possible collaboration for the end of January, NASA revealed in a news release.
If this initiative is approved by the U.S. Congress, it would allow NASA the opportunity to observe a signature of the Chang’e-4 probe’s landing plume with the LRO Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) instrument, NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen announced via Twitter.
With the required approval from Congress, NASA has been in discussions with China to explore the possibility of observing a signature of the landing plume of their lunar lander, Chang’e 4, using our @NASAMoon spacecraft's instrument. More on collaboration: https://t.co/YqLGdYqg9d pic.twitter.com/Iu0qbXuomo— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) January 18, 2019
Since the U.S. space agency is required by law to get advanced approval for any cooperative effort with Beijing on space exploration, as noted by the Russian news agency Sputnik News, NASA emphasized that any cooperation with China will be “transparent, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial,” in keeping with congressional and Trump administration guidelines.
Pending approval, NASA is planning on pointing the LRO imager toward the Chang’e-4 touchdown site within the Von Karman Crater on January 31 and hopefully record valuable data on the landing plume.
“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.”
As part of the collaboration agreement, NASA and CNSA will publicly share “any significant findings resulting from this coordination activity” at the 56th session of the Scientific and Technology Subcommittee meeting of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, due to be held in Vienna, Austria, in mid-February.
Although NASA did not elaborate on the reasons why the LRO orbiter could not be maneuvered into a prime observational orbit during the January 2 landing, the Chinese news agency Xinhua cites NASA’s senior communications official Dwayne Brown as saying that “NASA is currently closed due to a lapse in government funding.”