September 24, 2023

China and Russia have agreed to jointly build a research station on or around the moon in order to create the conditions for a new space race.

The United States and the Soviet Union, followed by their successor state Russia, have long dominated space exploration, taking the first astronauts to space and on the moon, and later collaborating on the International Space Station, which has been in orbit for two decades.

The joint announcement by China and Russia on Tuesday could disrupt space exploration geopolitics and re-establish competing programs and goals for the scientific and possibly commercial exploitation of the moon. This time around, the US and China will be the main players, with Russia playing a minor role.

In recent years, China has made great strides in space exploration by putting its own astronauts into orbit and sending probes to the Moon and Mars. It has effectively designed Russia as a partner for missions already planned, surpassing a Russian program that has stalled in recent years.

In December, China’s Chang’e-5 mission brought back samples from the lunar surface, which Beijing exhibited with great enthusiasm. This made China only the third nation after the USA and the Soviet Union to accomplish this feat. A lander and rover are expected to be sent to the surface of Mars in the coming months, shortly after NASA’s insistence that arrived there last month.

The two countries have neither detailed their joint projects nor set a timetable. According to a statement from the Chinese space agency, they agreed to “use their accumulated experience in space science research and development as well as the use of space equipment and space technology to jointly formulate a route map for the construction of an international scientific research station for the moon. ”

A memorandum of understanding, signed in a video conference Tuesday by Zhang Kejian, head of China’s space program, and his Russian counterpart Dmitri O. Rogozin, related to the Chang’e-7 mission, a Chinese probe awaiting launch China’s lunar probes are named after a moon goddess in classical Chinese mythology.

For Russia, the agreement is a role reversal.

The Soviet Union initially led the first space race in the mid-20th century before falling behind the United States, which put the first man on the moon in 1969, an feat the Soviets never managed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia became an important partner in the development of the International Space Station.

After NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz rockets were the only route to the International Space Station until SpaceX, a private company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, put astronauts into orbit with their own rocket last year.

In contrast, China was never invited to the International Space Station, as US law prohibits NASA from working with Beijing. That meant China “had no choice but to set and pursue its own goals,” said Joan S. Johnson-Freese, professor of national security at the United States Naval War College.

China has put eleven astronauts into orbit since 2003 and built two smaller space stations called Tiangong-1 and 2, which have since been decommissioned. The introduction of modules for a third station is planned for this year.

China promised to keep the joint project with Russia “open to all interested countries and international partners,” as the statement said, but it seemed far from safe to exclude the United States and its allies from exploring space.

The United States has its own plans to revisit the moon by 2024 through an international program called Artemis.

With Russia by its side, China could now include other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America and set up parallel programs for moon evolution, said Namrata Goswami, independent analyst and co-author of a new book on space exploration, “Scramble for the heavens.”

“China has created an ideological narrative about its lunar base that offers its advanced space capability as a benefit to those looking to get involved in an alternative mechanism of lunar exploration and resource exploitation,” she said.

Claire Fu contributed to the research.