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China’s premier astronomy and planetary resources lure foreign collaborators

Visitors gawk at Chang’e-5 lunar samples on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

TINGSHU WANG/REUTERS

For a generation, China played scientific catch-up to more advanced nations, but the tables are turning. China has the world’s largest radio telescope and the first Moon rocks in 45 years. Now, it is offering foreign researchers access to those scientific treasures. Many are eager, but others are uneasy about what they see as collaborating with an authoritarian regime.

In December 2020, the Chang’e-5 mission returned 1.7 kilograms of rock and soil from the Moon—the first lunar samples since 1976, and a chance for researchers to obtain dates that could help unravel Solar System history. On 18 January, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) confirmed it would encourage “joint international research” on the samples, and it may begin to review applications this month.

Also opening up is the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), the world’s most sensitive single-dish radio telescope since its completion in 2016. After several years of limited observations by domestically led teams, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s National Astronomical Observatories (NAOC), FAST’s operator, will this month start to accept proposals from foreign principal investigators. FAST Chief Scientist Li Di expects tens of applications for the roughly 400 hours of foreign observing time. “It will be severely oversubscribed, so it will be a competitive process,” Li says.

NAOC Director General Chang Jin says a major objective in sharing the resources is simply to do the best science. Getting foreign ideas about how to use FAST “is definitely beneficial to advancing research in radio astronomy,” he says. Generosity is also seen as befitting a space power. “China has benefited a lot from international space cooperation; it’s natural for China to give back to the world when it can,” says Zhang Ming, a space policy expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

David Burbach, a security and space policy expert at the U.S. Naval War College, says China’s science diplomacy “can promote domestic legitimacy [and] project a global image of being a cooperative and nonthreatening power.” But some see less benign motives. “The Chinese government is always looking for opportunities to convert scientific collaboration into political advantage,” says Clive Hamilton, an ethicist at Charles Sturt University, Canberra. For scientists this sets “an ethical trap of lending legitimacy” to an authoritarian regime, he says.

Some researchers agree. “Even if FAST was the perfect instrument to pursue my work, I would not be willing to work in China in a way that contributed to Chinese prestige,” says Joanna Rankin, a radio astronomer at the University of Vermont. She points to human rights concerns and the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.

For others, working with China is an exercise in scientific diplomacy, in the same spirit as U.S.-Soviet scientific collaborations of decades past. “In my opinion, working with China on scientific matters does not imply condoning its political practices,” says Sun Kwok, a Hong Kong–born astronomer and former dean of science at the University of Hong Kong now at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, who previously participated in the Chang’e program. “Such interactions certainly contributed positively during the Cold War,” says Carl Heiles, a radio astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. Invoking a hard line on cooperation would isolate China and reinforce disagreements, says Heiles, who is already on a FAST team observing the interstellar medium.

Legal and diplomatic obstacles may get in the way for U.S. researchers. Since 2011, Congress has barred NASA from using its funding for any bilateral activities “with China or any Chinese-owned company.” The language, originally added because of concerns over human rights and to protect advanced space technologies, could prevent U.S. lunar researchers from using NASA funds to study the samples.

China sees it as an impediment as well. Whether China will share lunar samples with U.S. scientists “depends on the policy of the U.S. government,” Wu Yanhua, CNSA deputy director, said at a 17 December 2020 press briefing. Bradley Jolliff, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, is frustrated but understands China’s stance. “We cannot loan Apollo samples to the Chinese; why should they loan Chang’e samples to U.S. scientists?” he asks.

An international consortium might “break down [the barriers] that the politicians have put in place,” says Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame who is in the early stages of developing a multilateral approach. Another budding effort is the International Lunar and Planetary Research Center, under the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences’s Institute of Geology, which is studying the possibility of arranging international visits to the laboratories holding samples, says Alexander Nemchin, a geologist at Curtin University and a co-chair of the group.

Scientists seeking to use FAST face fewer hurdles. “Practically anybody can put in a request,” Li says. An English-language application template has been posted on the FAST website that solicits proposals for observations up to 100 hours long. International referees will review and rank the proposals, and telescope time will be allocated by August 2021.

The untimely demise of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, previously the world’s largest single radio dish, adds to the allure of FAST. It won’t replace all of Arecibo’s capabilities: It covers a narrower range of frequencies, and lacks the active radar system that Arecibo used to map the surfaces of planets and asteroids. But with twice Arecibo’s sensitivity, FAST is discovering faint and unusual pulsars and fast radio bursts. Li also hopes FAST will help fill Arecibo’s shoes in the International Pulsar Timing Array, a network of telescopes seeking to detect gravitational waves by looking for tiny timing variations in signals from fast-spinning pulsars.

For foreign researchers, the opportunities are just beginning. This month or next, CNSA is expected to launch the core module of China’s space station, and within the next few years it will add two modules for experiments in microgravity, physics, and space weathering that will be open to international researchers. Around 2024, China is planning to launch an orbiting telescope with a 2-meter mirror—slightly smaller than the Hubble Space Telescope’s—that will be able to dock with the station for servicing. On Earth, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of High Energy Physics is planning a $5 billion particle accelerator that would dwarf the world’s top facility, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

“China is planning to implement many other big space exploration and science projects,” Zhang says. The dilemmas will multiply along with the opportunities.

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