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Editorial:First-ever Samples from The Moon's Far Side

【明報專訊】China's Chang'e-6 lunar probe has made history by returning with samples from the far side of the moon. Exploration of the moon's far side is extremely difficult; the success of Chang'e-6 therefore marks a breakthrough in China's space technology and an important step towards establishing the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the future.

The US has described China's lunar mission as a ''military programme'' intended to claim the moon as its territory. However, it is actually the US-led Artemis lunar programme that is paving the way for seizing lunar resources all the while. The US's refusal to join hands with China and its insistence on prioritising American hegemonic interests will only extend geopolitical confrontation from the Earth to space and the moon.

Chang'e-6 took off on 3 May this year, and soft-landed in early June on the moon's far side, where it collected about two kilogrammes of soil. The return capsule of the Chang'e-6 lunar probe landed smoothly in Inner Mongolia yesterday afternoon (25 June), marking the complete success of the 53-day mission. Mankind has collected lunar samples many times in the past, but all of them were from the moon's near side. Not only was the successful retrieval of samples from the moon's far side by Chang'e-6 a more difficult feat, but the samples were also more precious.

Since the moon's rotation and revolution cycles are the same, it always faces Earth with one side, and the other side that faces away is called the far side. Scientists have long wanted to understand the difference between the near side and the far side of the moon. The location where Chang'e-6 soft-landed, the South Pole-Aitken Basin, was the moon's most ancient and deepest basin as well as the largest known crater in the Solar System thus far. Soil retrieved from this site can help scientists peer into the history of the moon's evolution and the unique aspects of soil composition and minerals on the moon's far side.

Given its keen competition with China, the US can hardly sit on its hands while China makes rapid progress in lunar exploration and breakthroughs in space technology. Just a short time ago, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson openly claimed that China's space programme is a military mission intended to seize the moon and prohibit other countries from landing, which is totally different from the US's Artemis programme. The comment drew a strong rebuke from China.

In a bid to hold back China's development of space technology, the US refused to include China in the US-led International Space Station programme. Over a decade ago, the US Congress even enacted a law that bars NASA from official collaboration with China without special approval. By contrast, China has stressed that the ILRS programme it initiates would be ''open to any interested countries or international partners''.

The ILRS has been promoted as focusing on scientific research and is expected to be similar in nature to the research stations run by various countries in Antarctica now. The Artemis programme has suggested integrating resources from the US government and private enterprises to build a lunar station in 2028 that can sustain a human presence. The public's concern is that the programme is not only for the sake of scientific research, but also for promoting commercial exploitation of lunar resources.

In fact, the Artemis programme is paving the way for the US government and private enterprises to seize lunar resources earlier. It is in essence allowing the US to unilaterally set the rules of the game to approve commercial exploitation of the moon. It will be a tragedy for the human race should the moon truly become an extension of geopolitical confrontation.

明報社評 2024.06.26:月背採樣返回開先河 中美探月競爭白熱化

中國「嫦娥六號」開創月球背面採樣返回先河,月背探索難度極高,嫦娥六號的成功,標誌國家航天技術突破,為未來建設國際月球科研站(ILRS)踏出重要一步。

美方將中國探月計劃形容為「軍事項目」,意在「霸佔月球」,然而另一邊廂,美國牽頭的阿提米斯探月計劃,實際卻是為爭奪月球資源鋪路。美方不肯與中國合作,堅持美國霸權利益優先,只會將地緣政治對抗,由地球延伸到太空和月球之上。

嫦六今年5月3日升空,6月初軟着陸月背,採得兩公斤左右的土壤。隨着嫦六返回器昨午順利着陸內蒙古,歷時53天的任務亦大功告成。以往人類多次在月球採樣,均是來自月球正面,嫦六成功挑戰月背採樣,不僅難度更大,所得樣本也更為珍貴。

月球公轉與自轉周期相同,永遠以其中一面面向地球,另一面稱作月球背面。科學家一直希望弄清楚月球正面與背面的分別。嫦六軟着陸地點「南極-艾特肯盆地」,為月球最古老兼最深盆地,也是目前所知太陽系最大隕石坑,由此取得的樣本,有助科學家了解月球演化歷史,以及月背土壤成分及礦物有哪些獨特之處。

中美競爭激烈,中國探月進展神速、太空科技一再突破,美方當然不會無動於中。就在不久前,太空總署署長尼爾森才公開揚言中國的太空計劃屬於軍事目標,意欲「霸佔月球並禁止其他國家登陸」,與美國阿提米斯計劃(Artemis programme)探月截然不同,結果惹來中方強烈批評。

美國為了遏制中國太空科技發展,拒讓中國參與由美方牽頭的國際太空站計劃,美國國會10多年前甚至立法規定,除非特別批准,否則太空總署不得與中國有官方合作。相比之下,中國所倡的國際月球科研站,強調項目將「向所有感興趣的國家和國際合作伙伴開放」。

國際月球科研站標榜科研為主,性質估計類似現時各國在南極的科研站。阿提米斯計劃提出整合美國政府與私人企業的資源,於2028年在月球上建立可持續讓人類存在的基地,外界關注整個計劃的目的不止是科研,而是推動商業開發月球資源。

阿提米斯計劃實際就是為了美國政府和私企及早搶佔月球資源鋪路,變相由美國單方面制定遊戲規則,批准商業開發月球。倘若月球真的變成地緣政治對抗的延伸,將是人類的不幸。

■/ Glossary 生字 /

hegemonic /ˌhedʒɪˈmɒnɪk/:showing control by one country, organisation, etc. over other countries, etc. within a particular group

basin /ˈbeɪsn/:a place where the earth's surface is lower than in other areas

rebuke /rɪˈbjuːk/:the act of speaking severely to sb because they have done sth wrong

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