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A Chinese lunar probe returns to Earth with the world's first samples from the far side of the moon

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A Chinese lunar probe returns to Earth with the world's first samples from the far side of the moon
News

News

A Chinese lunar probe returns to Earth with the world's first samples from the far side of the moon

2024-06-25 18:34 Last Updated At:18:40

BANGKOK (AP) — China's Chang'e 6 probe returned on Earth with rock and soil samples from the little-explored far side of the moon in a global first.

The probe landed in the Inner Mongolian region in northern China on Tuesday afternoon.

“I now declare that the Chang’e 6 Lunar Exploration Mission achieved complete success," Zhang Kejian, Director of the China National Space Administration, said in a televised news conference after the landing.

Chinese scientists anticipate the returned samples will include 2.5 million-year-old volcanic rock and other material that scientists hope will answer questions about geographic differences on the moon's two sides.

The near side is what is seen from Earth, and the far side faces outer space. The far side is also known to have mountains and impact craters, contrasting with the relatively flat expanses visible on the near side.

The probe had landed in the moon's South Pole-Aitken Basin, an impact crater created more than 4 billion years ago. The samples scientists are expecting will likely come from different layers of the basin, which will bear traces of the different geological events across its long chronology, such as when the moon was younger and had an active inside that could produce volcanic rock.

While past U.S. and Soviet missions have collected samples from the moon's near side, the Chinese mission was the first that has collected samples from the far side.

"This is a global first in the sense that it’s the first time anyone has been able to take off from the far side of the moon and bring back samples," said Richard de Grijs, a professor of astrophysics at Macquarie University in Australia.

The moon program is part of a growing rivalry with the U.S. — still the leader in space exploration — and others, including Japan and India. China has put its own space station in orbit and regularly sends crews there.

China's leader Xi Jinping sent a message of congratulations to the Chang'e team, saying that it was a “landmark achievement in our country's efforts at becoming a space and technological power.”

The probe left earth on May 3, and its journey lasted 53 days. The probe has drilled into the core and scooped rocks from the surface.

The samples “are expected to answer one of the most fundamental scientific questions in lunar science research: what geologic activity is responsible for the differences between the two sides?” said Zongyu Yue, a geologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a statement issued in the Innovation Monday, a journal published in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

China in recent years has launched multiple successful missions to the moon, collecting samples from the moon’s near side with the Chang’e 5 probe previously.

They are also hoping that the probe will return with material that bear traces of meteorite strikes from the moon’s past. That material could shed light on the solar system's early days. There's a theory that the moon acted as a vaccum cleaner of sorts, attracting all the meteorites and debris in the system's earlier era so that they didn't hit Earth, said de Grijs, who is also executive director at the International Space Science Institute — Beijing.

China has said it plans to share the samples with international scientists, although it did not say exactly in which countries.

AP video producer Olivia Zhang contributed to this report.

FILE -This China National Space Administration (CNSA) handout image released by Xinhua News Agency, shows the lander-ascender combination of Chang'e-6 probe taken by a mini rover after it landed on the moon surface, June 4, 2024. China's Chang'e 6 probe returned on Earth on Tuesday with rock and soil samples from the little-explored far side of the moon in a global first. The probe landed in northern China on Tuesday afternoon in the Inner Mongolian region. (CNSA/Xinhua via AP, File)

FILE -This China National Space Administration (CNSA) handout image released by Xinhua News Agency, shows the lander-ascender combination of Chang'e-6 probe taken by a mini rover after it landed on the moon surface, June 4, 2024. China's Chang'e 6 probe returned on Earth on Tuesday with rock and soil samples from the little-explored far side of the moon in a global first. The probe landed in northern China on Tuesday afternoon in the Inner Mongolian region. (CNSA/Xinhua via AP, File)

FILE -In this photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-5 rocket, carrying the Chang'e-6 spacecraft, blasts off from its launchpad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in Wenchang, south China's Hainan Province, May 3, 2024. China's Chang'e 6 probe returned on Earth on Tuesday with rock and soil samples from the little-explored far side of the moon in a global first.The probe landed in northern China on Tuesday afternoon in the Inner Mongolian region. (Guo Cheng/Xinhua via AP, File)

FILE -In this photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-5 rocket, carrying the Chang'e-6 spacecraft, blasts off from its launchpad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in Wenchang, south China's Hainan Province, May 3, 2024. China's Chang'e 6 probe returned on Earth on Tuesday with rock and soil samples from the little-explored far side of the moon in a global first.The probe landed in northern China on Tuesday afternoon in the Inner Mongolian region. (Guo Cheng/Xinhua via AP, File)

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Over the past decade, Russia has seen a sharp increase in treason and espionage cases.

Lawyers and experts say prosecutions for these high crimes started to grow after 2014 — the year that Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. That’s also when Moscow backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

The number of treason and espionage cases in Russia really spiked after the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, and President Vladimir Putin urged the security services to “harshly suppress the actions of foreign intelligence services (and) promptly identify traitors, spies and saboteurs.” The crackdown has ensnared scientists and journalists, as well as ordinary citizens.

A look at some treason cases prosecuted in Russia in recent years:

In April 2008, bakery worker Oksana Sevastidi saw military equipment on the railway near Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort where she lived. She texted a friend who lived in neighboring Georgia about it. Weeks later, in August, the two countries fought a brief war, which ended with Moscow recognizing South Ossetia and another Georgian province, Abkhazia, as independent states and bolstering its military presence there.

Sevastidi was arrested in 2015, stemming from her text messages, and convicted of treason the following year. The case made national headlines after Ivan Pavlov and Evgeny Smirnov, prominent lawyers specializing in treason cases, took it on in 2016. That same year, Pavlov’s team revealed that several other Sochi women were convicted of treason in eerily similar cases.

President Vladimir Putin was asked about Sevastidi at his annual news conference in December 2016. He called her sentence “harsh” and promised to look into it, saying that “she wrote what she saw” in her texts and that it didn’t constitute a state secret. In 2017, Putin pardoned Sevastidi and two other women.

Ivan Safronov, a former journalist who went on to work for the Russian space agency Roscosmos, was arrested in 2020 and accused of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national. In September 2022, a court in Moscow convicted him of treason and sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

Safronov rose to prominence as a military affairs reporter for Kommersant, a leading business newspaper. He vehemently rejected the charges against him, arguing that he collected all the information from open sources as part of his journalistic work and did nothing illegal.

Colleagues denounced the verdict as unfounded and pushed for Safronov’s release, suggesting authorities may have wanted to punish him for his reporting about military and space incidents and arms deals.

His fiancee, Ksenia Mironova, told The Associated Press that she believes such treason cases, which are investigated in secret with trials held behind closed doors, are convenient for law enforcement because their accusations can go unchallenged:

“They don’t have to explain anything to anyone at all. Not that they bother anyway. … But (with open trials), there is still a chance that some unfortunate journalists will come and write something. With treason, the case is closed, and they can just concoct something, and that’s it,” said Mironova, who also is a journalist and has reported on the rise of treason prosecutions.

Valery Golubkin, now 71, was a physicist specializing in aerodynamics when he was arrested in 2021 and convicted of treason in June 2023. He was sentenced to 12 years in a maximum-security prison.

According to his lawyers, the authorities accused Golubkin of sharing state secrets with a foreign country. The scientist and his defense team argued that he merely submitted research reports on an international project of a hypersonic civilian aircraft that his state-run institute was involved in.

The reports didn’t contain state secrets and were vetted in accordance with regulations before they were sent abroad, according to lawyer Smirnov.

In a letter from behind bars to the Russian news outlet RBK in 2021, Golubkin said the project in question was approved by the Trade Ministry, and that the charges against him are based on the testimony of his supervisor, Anatoly Gubanov, who was arrested several months before Golubkin.

Gubanov, 66, also was convicted of treason and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2023.

Lawyers for Golubkin appealed his verdict and lost. In April 2024, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling on the appeal and ordered another review of it, but in the end, the original sentence was upheld.

His daughter, Lyudmila Golubkina, told AP that neither the family nor Golubkin have had high expectations after the Supreme Court ruling, and they now hope he can be released on parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence.

“When a person has something to live for, a goal, it helps them to overcome everything,” she said. “I hope we will still get to see him a free man.”

Igor Pokusin, a 62-year-old retired pilot who was born in Ukraine, was arrested in the southern Siberian city of Abakan, for protesting Russia's 2022 invasion of his native land. He was convicted of vandalism and sentenced to six months of parole-like restrictions.

He later was arrested again on the more serious charge of “preparing for treason,” according to the First Department, a rights group that investigates treason cases.

The charges against him stemmed from his phone calls to relatives and friends in which he mulled moving to Ukraine and volunteering as a pilot there to ferry the wounded or deliver humanitarian aid, according to the rights group and media reports.

In January 2024, Pokusin was convicted of the “preparing for treason” charge and sentenced to eight years in prison. The First Department said he died behind bars in June.

Advocates from Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights group, have declared Pokusin, Sevastidi, Safronov and a number of others accused of treason to be designated as political prisoners.

FILE - In this photo released by the Moscow City Court Press Service, Valery Golubkin, a physicist specializing in aerodynamics, stands in a defendant’s cage in court in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, June 26, 2023. Golubkin, 71, was arrested in 2021 and convicted of treason in 2023 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing state secrets abroad, but he and his lawyers insisted that he merely submitted research reports on an international project that didn’t contain any state secrets and were cleared for submission. (Moscow City Court Press Service via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo released by the Moscow City Court Press Service, Valery Golubkin, a physicist specializing in aerodynamics, stands in a defendant’s cage in court in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, June 26, 2023. Golubkin, 71, was arrested in 2021 and convicted of treason in 2023 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing state secrets abroad, but he and his lawyers insisted that he merely submitted research reports on an international project that didn’t contain any state secrets and were cleared for submission. (Moscow City Court Press Service via AP, File)

FILE - Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's state space agency, stands in a defendant’s cage in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, July 16, 2020. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's state space agency, stands in a defendant’s cage in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, July 16, 2020. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's state space agency, greets journalists while standing in a defendant’s cage in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, with two Federal Security Service officers sitting nearby. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's state space agency, greets journalists while standing in a defendant’s cage in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, with two Federal Security Service officers sitting nearby. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Oksana Sevastidi with her lawyers Evgeny Smirnov, right, and Ivan Pavlov, awaits a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Sevastidi, a bakery worker in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, was convicted of treason and sentenced to seven years in prison after she sent a text message to a friend in neighboring Georgia about seeing military equipment carried on a nearby railway prior to Russia’s brief war in 2008 with its neighbor. President Vladimir Putin pardoned her in 2017. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Oksana Sevastidi with her lawyers Evgeny Smirnov, right, and Ivan Pavlov, awaits a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Sevastidi, a bakery worker in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, was convicted of treason and sentenced to seven years in prison after she sent a text message to a friend in neighboring Georgia about seeing military equipment carried on a nearby railway prior to Russia’s brief war in 2008 with its neighbor. President Vladimir Putin pardoned her in 2017. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Oksana Sevastidi leaves Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, March 12, 2017. Sevastidi, a bakery worker in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, was convicted of treason and sentenced to seven years in prison after she sent a text message to a friend in neighboring Georgia about seeing military equipment carried on a nearby railway prior to Russia’s brief war in 2008 with its neighbor. President Vladimir Putin pardoned her in 2017. (AP Photo/Denis Tyrin, File)

FILE - Oksana Sevastidi leaves Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, March 12, 2017. Sevastidi, a bakery worker in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, was convicted of treason and sentenced to seven years in prison after she sent a text message to a friend in neighboring Georgia about seeing military equipment carried on a nearby railway prior to Russia’s brief war in 2008 with its neighbor. President Vladimir Putin pardoned her in 2017. (AP Photo/Denis Tyrin, File)

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