The Chinese lunar probe, the Chang'e-4, takes a selfie on the far side of the moon. Photo: Handout

China and France are going to the moon together, according to a new cooperation pact signed by the two countries’ space authorities during Xi Jinping’s visit to Paris at the end of last month.

China’s National Space Administration and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales signed a partnership agreement on joint space exploration under the auspices of Presidents Xi and Emmanuel Macron. The highlight of the deal is that China will fly a French scientific payload on its Chang’e 6 lunar probe, which has a mission planned in 2023 to bring back samples from the moon’s south pole.

China landed its first rover on the moon in 2013, and then sent a rover that touched down on the far side of the moon in early January.

The Chang’e 6 is a planned robotic lunar exploration mission. Scientists in China plan a second voyage after collecting lunar samples from the near side of the moon. They are eventually aiming at staging a crewed lunar landing in the 2030s and possibly setting up an outpost near the lunar south pole.

The Chang’e 6 mission is reported to consist of four modules: a lander to collect about 2 kilograms of samples from 2 meters below the surface and placing them in an attached ascent vehicle to be launched into a lunar orbit. The ascent vehicle would then make a rendezvous to dock with an orbiter, which would transfer the samples into a capsule for delivery back to Earth.

Last October, Beijing announced that it would call for international partners to propose an additional payload of up to 10kg to be included in this mission.

China’s Xi and France’s Macron witness the signing of bilateral cooperation deals, including an agreement to fly a French scientific payload to the moon. Photo: Handout

China and France have also launched work on the next joint Earth-observation mission, with a focus on ocean salinity and soil moisture, under a Space Climate Observatory program to deliver and assess satellite data to track climate change and its impacts.

Last October, the China-France Oceanography Satellite, designed to observe atmospheric changes between winds and waves above the oceans, was launched atop a Long March rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province in northwestern China. Data from the satellite will be available to the international science community next month.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief of the French space agency, told Xinhua that other collaboration projects between the two countries include astrophysics missions to study high-energy phenomena and space medicine, on top of ongoing programs about the sharing of space orbit data, aero engine design, satellite key-component design and production.

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