Based on the Chang'e 3 landing, Spudis says China probably has the technical capability to put a rover down on the surface in the rugged polar terrain within “a kilometer or so” of a preselected landing site. Site selection for the planned Chang'e 5 sample-return mission will be more difficult. “I could come up with a list of 20 sites where it would be nice to have samples,” he says.
An initial Chinese sample-return mission probably would land on the Moon's near side to avoid the complexity of a communications-relay satellite. Beyond that, Spudis says, the most interesting results would come from a fresh lava flow not far from where Chang'e 3 is operating, or from the floor of a fairly young crater such as Copernicus. Nailing down its age would help determine when volcanic activity on the Moon shut down.
Scientists backed by NASA are forbidden by law from cooperating with China, a situation that conceivably could change now that the author of that law, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), has announced he will not seek reelection next year. NASA has three orbital missions operating at the Moon and, even without direct cooperation, has attempted to use the Chinese landing as an opportunity to collect data. So far, though, the cupboard has been bare.
Program scientists used NASA's new Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (Ladee), launched Sept. 7 on a nominal 100-day orbital mission at the Moon, to try to detect the effects of Chang'e 3's arrival and landing, but at least initially without results. Ladee did not pick up gases from the Chinese mission's deorbit burn, nor did its dust instrument collect any unusual readings after the landing.
NASA has said it would make any data it gathers as a result of the Chinese landing “available to the international scientific community.” So far, China has kept its detailed lunar findings to itself. With the lunar landing, and the grand tour as far as the Earth-Sun L-2 Lagrangian point conducted by Chang'e 2, Spudis says China can go anywhere in cislunar space. Application of the capability is dual-use, as Wolf has warned in his legislative attacks on the Chinese government.