HELSINKI — China continues to add new members to its International Lunar Research Station initiative, but many of these are subnational, suggesting issues attracting partners.

The latest development saw the Asociación de Astronomía de Colombia (ASASAC) sign a memorandum of understanding on cooperation on the ILRS with China’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL) earlier this month. DSEL announced the agreement March 27. 

Kyrgyzstan’s Arabaev Kyrgyz State University signed an MoU in early March. PT Universal Satelit Indonesia (UniSat) signed up in December. These are the latest in a line of subnational or non-governmental entities—such as firms, universities and astronomical associations—that have signed MoUs with DSEL. Others include the University of Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Hawaii’s International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA).

“China seems to face more difficulties than expected in bringing partners on board its ILRS program. Including civilian associations and universities likely reflects a lack of better alternatives,” Marc Julienne, director of the Center for Asian Studies at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), told SpaceNews.

Julienne further notes that China signed a cooperation agreement on ILRS with only one country: Egypt. It has signed Memorandums of Understanding with only two states, South Africa and Pakistan, while it signed lower-level “joint statements on cooperation” with Venezuela, Belarus and Azerbaijan.

Geopolitical complexities

The ILRS is a China-led, initially Sino-Russian initiative parallel to and separate from NASA’s Artemis program. Both aim to establish a sustainable lunar presence and are engaged in attracting partners. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has impacted ILRS efforts. China has regularly omitted any mention of Russia as an ILRS partner since this time, though still Russia remains involved. Russia’s space sector has also suffered following the start of its invasion, while its Luna 25 moon lander mission, nominally part of ILRS, ended in failure.

Last month Uruguay became the 36th country to sign the Artemis Accords which outline best practices in lunar and deep space exploration. China has said it intends to establish an organization, named ILRSCO, to coordinate the ILRS initiative. It will be headquartered in the city of Hefei in Anhui province.

Julienne notes that China’s space cooperation is now looking to the “Global South.” This is because of a lack of better alternatives and broader diplomatic reasons. 

“The main challenge for China in engaging “Global South” countries in ILRS, is that countries either have a space program and collaborate with the United States, Europe or Japan, and many of them have already signed the Artemis Accords with the U.S., like Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Uruguay, or they have no or embryonic space program, like Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Pakistan.” 

In the first case, China has little chance of winning these countries over the U.S., says Julienne. In the second case, for countries with little or no experience in the field, space is often not a priority and therefore they don’t constitute strong partners for China.

Subnational partners could however provide a route to wider influence and cooperation, even with the UAE, which is an Artemis signatory and involved in the Gateway.

LRS 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
University of Sharjah (UAE)University
Adriatic Aerospace Association (A3) (Croatia)Organization
Asociación de Astronomía de Colombia (ASASAC)Organization
Arabaev Kyrgyz State University (Kyrgyzstan)University
PT Universal Satelit Indonesia (UniSat)Firm

Lunar infrastructure

Diplomacy is just one facet of the new lunar programs. Both the Artemis and ILRS projects require vast economic and technological resources. NASA has demonstrated its super heavy-lift SLS rocket. SpaceX is currently working towards making Starship operational.

China is developing the Long March 10 rocket for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit. It plans to send its first astronauts to the lunar surface before 2030 using two Long March 10 launches. Crew will launch on one rocket, with an in-development lunar lander stack to launch separately on another. 

The larger Long March 9 rocket—which appears to have undergone a number of design changes, notably for reusability—is expected to become operational in the 2030s. That launcher would facilitate large lunar infrastructure missions. These were outlined in a China-Russia ILRS roadmap unveiled in 2021.

China last week launched its Queqiao-2 lunar communications relay satellite. It entered an initial 200 x 100,000-kilometer orbit 112 hours later. This will be trimmed into a 24-hour-period, highly-elliptical “frozen” orbit. Two smaller satellites were aboard the launch, named Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2. These are pathfinders for a planned wider Queqiao constellation to provide lunar navigation and communication services.

Queqiao-2 will facilitate the Chang’e-6 lunar far side sample return mission, launching in May. It will later support the future Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 lunar south pole landings. The missions are precursors intended to establish a “basic model” of the ILRS. They will also test key technologies including in-situ resource utilization. The relay satellite could also play a role in international cooperation.

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...