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July 20, 2018 03:20 pm

Some Scientists Work With China, But NASA Won't

An anonymous reader shares a report: Inside a sealed clean room near Toulouse, France, Maurice Sylvestre points out something called SuperCam. Sylvestre is outfitted in Tyvex and hairnets, necessary to keep out dust, skin particles, and dirt that could mar the super-smooth surface of his device. SuperCam sits underneath a ventilator hood, glimmering inside a golden-metallic housing. The device is designed to scan the Martian surface with a camera, laser, and spectrometer in hopes of finding organic compounds that could be related to early life on Mars. In two years, this 12-pound, microwave oven-sized unit will blast off as part of the Mars 2020 mission, a spacecraft/lander/rover combo by NASA and its partners that will replace the long-serving Curiosity mission. Sylvestre is a planetary scientist at France's Institute for Research and Planetary Astronomy, and deputy principal investigator for SuperCam. But he's an international collaborator: Over the years, he's worked on missions to Saturn, the moon, and Mars with NASA colleagues. Sylvestre's lab is currently building an instrument similar to SuperCam that will fly to Mercury on the European-Japanese BepiColombo mission, as well as one called Eclair that is part of a joint French-Chinese satellite. Notably, that makes him one of a small number of planetary scientists who are working with China to boost their science, while doing his best to keep Western technology from getting pilfered. It's a tightrope that not everyone is willing to walk. "We are careful what we are doing," Sylvestre says. "We understand the security issues. We understand that we should be careful and not be too naive. But at the same time I feel the idea of planetary exploration is for everyone." Working with both NASA and China may seem like a contradiction, or even a conflict. The two superpowers are butting heads on trade, military, and cybersecurity issues. Congress has banned NASA officials and NASA money from going to China. That might be because of a recent history of Chinese espionage targeting US military, aerospace, and technological secrets.

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