Cosmic Space

Russia and China make a deal for joint moon base

Russian and Chinese space officials say they’ll cooperate on the creation of a moon base known as the International Lunar Research Station — a move that could pose a challenge to NASA’s Artemis program for lunar exploration.

The memorandum of understanding for the project was signed today by Roscosmos’ director general, Dmitry Rogozin; and by Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration. The signing ceremony was conducted by videoconference.

In a statement, Roscosmos said the station will offer “open access to all interested countries and international partners, with the aim of strengthening scientific research interaction, promoting research and using outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all humankind.”

CNSA issued a similar statement, saying that the ILRS would be a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or lunar orbit.” Research projects will focus on lunar exploration and utilization, moon-based observations, basic scientific studies and technical tests.

Today’s reports from China and Russia didn’t specify the time frame for building the base, but last year, Chinese officials talked about building up the ILRS in the moon’s south polar region over the course of the 2020s and 2030s, with long-term habitation by 2045.

By 2069, traffic to and from the moon could become routine, Russian and Chinese space officials said at a conference in Switzerland in 2019. “The moon will just look like a resort, as a backyard for grilling some meat,” said Anatoli Petrukovich, director of the Space Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Wu Ji, former director of the National Space Science Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, basically agreed. “People will go there and come back,” Wu said. “The staff of the hotel will work there. So that will be permanent human habitability on the moon in 50 years.”

In the shorter term, the Russian-Chinese plan may well rival NASA’s Artemis plan for lunar exploration. Over the past couple of years, NASA has championed a set of international agreements known as the Artemis Accords, which are designed to govern lunar exploration activities under U.S. leadership.

Roscosmos’ Rogozin has resisted NASA’s current approach to moon missions. Last year, he said that the agreements governing the NASA-led lunar Gateway project were “too U.S.-centric,” and that Russia would refrain from large-scale participation unless the decision-making process put more emphasis on international cooperation.

So far, the rival plans laid out by NASA and Roscosmos for lunar exploration haven’t affected the decades-long partnership involving the U.S., Russia and other countries on the International Space Station.

China has been frozen out of the International Space Station due to U.S. legislation that bans space cooperation with Beijing. Chinese officials say they’ll launch the first component of a new space station into orbit as early as next month. The station’s Tianhe core module will accommodate up to three spacefliers at a time. Last week, CNSA listed 12 Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts, who are training for orbital duty.

In other developments:

  • Roscosmos confirmed that NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei would fly alongside two Russian cosmonauts next month to begin a tour of duty on the International Space Station. Vande Hei is replacing Russia’s Sergey Korsakov on the Soyuz spacecraft in response to “an earnest request from the U.S. side,” Roscosmos said in a statement. It said the arrangement is covered under an agreement with Axiom Space that reportedly provides for a Russian cosmonaut to fly on a U.S. commercial space taxi in 2023.
  • Twenty women are in the running to play the main role in a Russian movie that will be partly filmed in space, Roscosmos said. “This is a story about how a young woman, who had absolutely no plans to go into space, in a month — due to circumstances — had to be in orbit,” said Konstantin Ernst, director general of Russia’s Channel One. The finalists were selected from about 2,000 applicants, and the star will be chosen after a round of medical tests. Filming for the movie — which is tentatively titled “Vyzov,” or “Challenge” — is set to start in October, Ernst said.
  • France and China have reaffirmed their commitment to working together in the field of space exploration, Reuters quoted France’s CNES space agency as saying.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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