China seeks new partners for lunar and deep space exploration

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China's partner Russia not mentioned during space Congress in Paris

PARIS — China is looking to build partnerships for its upcoming missions to the moon and deep ventures into the solar system, while omitting mention of main partner Russia.

Chinese space officials presented a range of opportunities for international cooperation in the country’s plans during a session at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris, Sept. 21.

Wang Qiong of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center under the China National Space Administration (CNSA) stated that China was open to proposals for its Chang’e-7 lunar south pole landing and orbiting mission—with a coinciding call announced by CNSA—and later Chang’e-8 in-situ resource utilization test mission.

Chang’e-6 already features participation from Sweden and ESA in the form of a negative ion detector, an Italian retroreflector, a French radon instrument and a Pakistani CubeSat, named ICUBE-Q, Wang stated. 

The UAE will also have a small rover with a mass of around 10 kilograms on board the mission.

In deep space, China is working on Tianwen-2, a near-Earth asteroid sampling mission which will also visit a main belt comet, launching around 2025. The Tianwen-3 Mars sample return and Tianwen-4 mission to Jupiter and Uranus are still at preliminary stages and open to collaboration. The Tianwen-4 mission will include a solar-powered Jupiter orbiter and a smaller, radioisotope-powered spacecraft to make a flyby of Uranus.

Currently China is inviting proposals for payloads to join its own, already planned and approved Chang’e lunar missions due to launch before the end of the decade. This has characterized much of China’s cooperation, with the main exception of collaborative projects with Europe.

The International Lunar Research Station, a megaproject envisioning the establishment of a permanent robotic and later human-occupied moon base in the 2030s, will however be open to a much wider scope and depth of involvement. This will allow countries, agencies, companies and other entities to join in at the planning and other stages to form a coordinated set of infrastructure on the moon.

The elephant in the room was however not mentioned. The ILRS roadmap was presented as a joint project by nominally equal partners China and Russia in June 2021 in St. Petersburg during another International Astronautical Federation (IAF) event. There was no Russian presence at IAC due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The project had generally been referred to as a joint China-Russia program until after the invasion. Wang’s presentation stated instead that the ILRS was conceived in 2014 and selected as an “ongoing program of international major scientific project in China” in 2020.

The only visible representation of potential Russian came in a slide listing future Chinese Chang’e and Russia Luna missions, alongside graphics of the Chinese Long March 9 super heavy-lift rocket and a large Russian launch vehicle. The slide was taken straight from ILRS handbook released to coincide with the St. Petersburg event in 2021, and Russia nor its missions were not explicitly named. 

Phases of China-Russia ILRS moon base development.
Phases of ILRS development. Credit: CNSA/Roscosmos

It is hard to say if the lack of representation of Russian involvement reflects a change in Beijing’s thinking or a sensitivity to the current geopolitical context. But China appears to face a dilemma for its grandest space ambitions so far.

“Be it in space or elsewhere, China has a very realistic view of Russia and partnering with Moscow has never been Beijing’s most preferred outcome, for the two countries are not natural partners,” Marco Aliberti, a senior research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) in Vienna, told SpaceNews.

“This uneasiness is well reflected in the very nature of their cooperation initiatives, including most notably their joint ILRS, which still remains little more than a coordination mechanism rather than a bold undertaking sharing a common goal.”

“In moving forward, however, Beijing now seems to be increasingly confronted with a difficult dilemma: turn the relationship into a real partnership or drop it altogether.”

Aliberti says China has been eager to build a credible alternative to the US-led Artemis, not only from a programmatic but also a normative perspective. But potential gains from partnering with Russia, previously including tapping into technological knowhow, are evaporating. 

“Beyond a few launcher programmes, with questionable success, military satellites and heritage human spaceflight experience, Russia has not been able to offer novel and innovative efforts to the international community in the recent past and I believe this will be exacerbated even more by the continuing sanctions and overall isolation of the country,” says Tomas Hrozensky, also of ESPI.

Given Russia’s current standing in the world, a partnership “may prevent new, and possibly more auspicious, partners” such as European countries, working with China, Aliberti notes.

He adds that what may result is a continuation of an ambiguous stance that will “officially celebrate the importance of cooperation with Russia while in parallel pursuing opportunities that better serve its national interests.”