An illustration of the various NASA and other Earth science satellites in the "A-train". China had considered adding its own to the series, but decided to find other ways to cooperate with NASA. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The head of NASA’s Earth science division, Michael Freilich, met with Chinese officials last month regarding potential coordination between the two countries on an upcoming Chinese mission, the agency said Aug. 4.

The meeting, first reported by the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post but not initially confirmed by NASA, is the latest sign that the space agency is finding ways to work with China despite strict limitations placed by Congress on bilateral cooperation.

“As part of coordination discussions between NASA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences related to Earth science research, Dr. Freilich met with his counterparts at the Chinese Academy of Sciences on July 12, 2016, in Beijing,” NASA spokesman Steve Cole said Aug. 4.

The purpose of the meeting, Cole said, was “to discuss scientific data exchange and China’s plans for the launch of its new carbon monitoring mission, TanSat.” Cole did not disclose the outcome of the meeting, and said “no follow-up activities planned at this time.”

TanSat is a 500-kilogram satellite under development by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to measure carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. The spacecraft is scheduled for launch late this year on a Long March 2D rocket.

The mission of TanSat is similar to NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2) spacecraft, launched in 2014. However, TanSat may be able to measure carbon dioxide levels with “unprecedented precision,” according to the South China Morning Post report.

China had previously expressed an interest in including TanSat in a constellation of Earth science satellites known as the Afternoon Constellation or A-Train, so named because the satellites pass over the Equator at 1:30 p.m. local time. The A-Train includes several satellites from the U.S., France and Japan that pass over the same region within minutes of each other, allowing for coordinated observations.

However, China opted to use a slightly different orbit “due to the complicated requirements and operational procedures for all participants in the A-Train,” according to a comment from a Chinese Academy of Sciences official provided to eoPortal, an Earth observation website run by the European Space Agency.

The discussions between NASA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences took place even though there are strict limitations on bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese entities. Language in appropriations bills in recent years largely restricts NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from any cooperative efforts with Chinese organization.

The most recent language, included in the fiscal year 2016 omnibus spending bill passed in December 2015, prevents NASA and OSTP from spending funds “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.”

The bill, though, does allow such cooperation provided it does not involve the transfer of sensitive technology, or interactions with Chinese officials known to be involved in human rights violations, provided Congress certifies those plans at least 30 days in advance. Cole said that the July 12 meeting “was conducted in full accordance with all applicable U.S. laws.”

NASA is also cooperating with China in the area of aviation. In an Aug. 4 blog post on the NASA website, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that, after concluding ongoing meetings in Japan, he would visit China “to discuss areas of mutual interest in aviation research” with the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment (CAE).

“This will be part of ongoing conversations that began in November of 2014 and have continued through a NASA-CAE workshop in Beijing that was held in August 2015,” Bolden wrote.

Outside of NASA, where there are fewer restrictions on U.S.-China space cooperation, there have been meetings between the countries on both civil and military space issues. “Over the last year, we have made significant progress with China on space security and sustainability issues,” said Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, at a July 21 symposium on international cooperation in commercial space activities at the French Embassy here.

Those meetings included the first U.S.-China civil space dialogue, involving the U.S. State Department and the Chinese space agency, which took place in September 2015 in Beijing. A separate meeting between the two countries on space security issues took place in Washington in May.

Such meetings, he said, are evidence that the two countries can cooperate despite having differing views on space policy issues. “Despite the differences we have with Russia and China — and believe me, we have some serious differences with them on space security issues — there are also opportunities where we can find common ground,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...