China has a new partner in its lunar ambitions: Russia. According to an agreement signed between the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, the two governments will cooperate in establishing a permanent lunar base, either on the moon’s surface or in lunar orbit.
The memorandum of understanding, signed on March 9, calls for “extensive cooperation” on an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), described as “a comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit.”
As Namrata Goswami has explained for The Diplomat, three main factors drive China’s interest in the moon: the potential to exploit lunar resources (like water ice, helium-3, and titanium), the chance to develop China’s space capabilities, and the national prestige of China taking global leadership of space exploration. “For China, the moon is a pit stop or a base to enable it to become a truly space faring nation, reflecting civilizational vibrancy, ideological superiority, and technical prowess,” Goswami wrote.
The eventual base will be “open to all interested countries and international partners,” potentially framing China and Russia as the core of a new era of international space cooperation. The International Space Station (ISS), situated in low Earth orbit, has been hosting astronauts for scientific research for over 20 years, but it is nearing the end of its life, both operationally and perhaps geopolitically. Amid increasing Russia-U.S. tensions, financial support for the ISS is only guaranteed through 2024.
The ISS involves cooperation from the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada, but notably excludes China. Beijing has thus been pursuing plans to set up its own space station, with plans to launch the core module into orbit in the next few months. Crewed missions will follow later this year, and construction is supposed to be completed in 2022. By 2025, China may have the only functioning space station, if the ISS is decommissioned as currently scheduled.
China has been seeking other partners for its ILRS, meaning Russia may not be the last to sign on. Reportedly, the CNSA has pitched the idea to the European Space Agency as well.
Current U.S. legislation prevents NASA, the U.S. space agency, from collaborating with CNSA – meaning the United States would be precluded by its own laws from taking part in either China’s new space station or the Sino-Russian lunar base. If the planned ILRS becomes the new global base for space research and experimentation, the United States would be left on the outs, an ironic role reversal with China.
China’s current plans call for its first manned lunar mission in 2036, meaning it will be well over a decade before any permanent lunar base becomes operational. But even before the agreement with Russia, China had been planning to establish a long-term human presence on the moon. The CNSA is eyeing the lunar south pole, believed to be rich in resources, as the location for such a lunar research station, with the goal of hosting long-term manned missions after 2036. By 2045, when China aims to be a “world-leading” space power, the base should be fully operational.