HELSINKI — Belarus joined China’s International Lunar Research Station program Monday, following a video conference with the China National Space Administration.

Vladimir Gusakov, chairman of the Presidium of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus (NASB) and Zhang Kejian, CNSA administrator, signed a joint declaration on cooperation on the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) program Oct. 23.

“According to the joint declaration, the parties will cooperate in the process of creating and operating the ILRS,” Belarusian state-owned news agency BelTA reported, citing the press service of NASB.

“The areas of cooperation will be fundamental and applied research in the field of engineering and technologies for space use, new materials and electronic component base, training and advanced training of scientific personnel and specialists. By mutual agreement, the parties shall determine other areas of cooperation,” the NASB statement said.

The China-led ILRS project aims to construct a permanent lunar base in the 2030s, with precursor missions in the 2020s. The initiative is seen as a China-led, parallel project and potential competitor to the NASA-led Artemis Program.

CNSA and NASB agreed to draft a cooperation roadmap to include science and technology projects related to the creation and operation of the ILRS, according to the report.

The Belarus Space Agency operates under the NASB, coordinating space research programs. 

The joint declaration follows days after Pakistan officially signed up to ILRS. Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director for Secure World Foundation, told SpaceNews that Pakistan’s joining has more political than technical relevance. 

“Pakistan does not have its own launch capabilities—it depends on China for that—and Pakistan has only 3 active satellites on orbit, while China has over 800,” Samson wrote in an email. 

“So in terms of it contributing substantively to the ILRS, I’m not entirely certain it will have a lot of technical things to add. But there is something to be said for political support and it is a statement endorsing China’s moon plans if nothing else.”

Samson noted that the case was similar for Belarus, stating that it has only three active satellites in orbit. It likewise has long-standing military ties with China. China built and launched the DFH-4-based Belintersat 1 communications satellite to geostationary orbit for Belarus in 2016.

ILRS signatoryType
South AfricaCountry
Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO)Inter-governmental Organization
nanoSPACE AG (Switzerland)Firm
International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA, Hawaii)Organization
National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT)Institute
List of known signatories to the China-led ILRS program as of Oct. 23, 2023. Credit: Andrew Jones/SpaceNews

Azerbaijan joined ILRS earlier this month. The number of recent announcements appears to reflect a plan to attract founding members.

The Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL), under CNSA, stated earlier this year that China aims to complete the signing of agreements with space agencies and organizations for founding members of ILRS by October.

China is setting up an organization, named ILRSCO, in the city of Hefei in Anhui province to coordinate the initiative. 

The ILRS first emerged as a Chinese proposal in the late 2010s. The project was formalized when China and Russia presented a joint road map for the ILRS in June 2021. Beijing has however since apparently taken the role of lead of the project since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

A recent Chinese presentation on the outline of the ILRS omitted Russian super heavy-launch vehicles displayed in the earlier roadmap.

The U.S. and China are advancing respective Artemis and ILRS lunar exploration plans. The parallel projects highlight a renewed international focus on the moon and competitively seeking to assert space leadership. 

The U.S. is expanding its Artemis Accords, recently adding Germany as the 29th signatory. NASA aims to execute crewed missions around and on the moon no earlier than 2025

China aims to land astronauts on the moon before 2030, preceded by technology-verification missions in 2026 and 2028. This rivalry suggests a potential emergence of distinct international space industry ecosystems.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...