IT IS SCARCELY a secret that Beijing and Moscow are teaming up on lunar exploration.
The latest confirmation comes with Wu Yanhua, a deputy director of the China National Space Administration, saying that the two countries aim to complete basic infrastructure construction for a lunar station by 2035. Longer-term plans are to grow the base to the size of a small town with systems for energy, communication and life support.
Wu’s comments came during a briefing on the launch of a white paper on China’s space programme released on January 28.
The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding last March on the building of the lunar research station and are expected to sign the full agreement shortly, perhaps while Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing in February for the Winter Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, Liu Jizhong, director of the administration’s China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, says the two countries have already agreed to cooperate on a robotic lunar mission using China’s Chang’e 7 probe and Russia’s Luna-26 orbiter around 2025 to explore water distribution as well as the poles of the moon, particularly to assess if the south pole is suitable for a soft landing. China plans two such robotic probe missions.
Ye Peijian, the chief designer of China’s first lunar probe, has said that the country may be able to send astronauts to the moon for the first time within five years. That would edge the target date for the United States to return astronauts to the moon on a sustained basis under its Artemis program.
The joint Russian-Chinese collaboration and the United States’ Artemis programme are direct rivals in a new race to the moon. The US space agency, NASA, had hoped that its cooperation with Russia, with which it jointly operates the International Space Station, would carry over to Artemis, but Moscow has so given that hope the cold shoulder, reflecting current geopolitical realities.
The space white paper says China would welcome international participation in the lunar research station project, but it is difficult to see the United States or its allies taking up the offer. It might be appealing to countries like Thailand or Saudi Arabia, however.
China’s most recent mission to the moon was the Chang’e 5, which brought back lunar samples last year. A rover set down on the far side of the moon in 2019 is still exploring the surface.
The white paper also lays out China’s other priorities in space over the next five years. As well as completing its Tiangong space station, these include developing cislunar transport systems, space infrastructure, human-crewed spaceflight, deep space exploration and space governance.
It also drops markers for longer-term ambitions to bring back samples from Mars and explore Jupiter and the outer edges of the solar system.
Perhaps most intriguing are the hints the white paper gives about commercialising space. It lists space debris cleaning as a business focus, a rubric under which space tourism, test services, satellites and space biopharmaceuticals also fall. Longer-term, lunar mining is a likely area of potential China-US competition.
The 14th Five-Year Plan, which covers 2021-25 and was released last March, includes a new spaceport for commercial launches. China has made its rocket launches available to private firms since 2014. However, the Peoples’ Liberation Army controls the four existing sites, only one of which supports private launches. An additional launch site could spur the development of commercial space activity, particularly for the satellite industry, and increase the overall launch capacity.
Meeting such commercial ambitions, however, would likely require the transfer of state space technologies to private companies, which could run into national security concerns and other political sensitivities, although any private companies involved would likely be closely aligned with national goals.
Nonetheless, the dual civilian-military development of such technologies, especially those for space debris cleaning, which could be used to capture active satellites as well as space junk will raise red flags in Washington and Brussels.