HELSINKI — European-Chinese cooperation in lunar exploration could come to an end despite successful collaboration in the ongoing Chang’e-6 mission.

ESA provided a payload for China’s Chang’e-6 complex lunar far side sample return mission which launched May 3. The mission aims to gather and return samples from the lunar far side, providing unprecedented insights into the moon’s composition and history.

An instrument developed by the Swedish Institute of Space physics was aboard the Chang’e-6 lander which earlier this month landed in and sampled the mid-latitude Apollo crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin. 

The European team working with the Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface (NILS) instrument confirmed the success of their scientific mission. The payload made the first detection of negative ions on the lunar surface.

“The discovery of a new component of plasma at the surface of the moon opens a new window for space physics and for human and robotic missions in an era of renewed lunar exploration,” ESA stated

China is preparing for two lunar south pole missions with Chang’e-7 around 2026 and the Chang’e-8 in-situ resource utilization and technology mission no earlier than 2028. 

The successful NILS experiment cooperation with Chang’e-6 may, however, mark the end of an era of ESA-China lunar collaboration.

“For the moment there are no decisions to continue the cooperation on the Chang’e-7 or -8,” Karl Bergquist, ESA’s international relations administrator, told SpaceNews.

Further ahead, ESA will not be involved in the China-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). 

“ESA will not cooperate on ILRS as this is a Sino-Russian initiative and space cooperation with Russia is at present under embargo,” Bergquist stated.

It is the latest blow to Sino-European space cooperation. ESA last year also stated that it would no longer pursue opportunities to send European astronauts to the Tiangong space station. China and ESA had earlier conducted training exchanges.

ILRS, partners and Russian ratification

China and Russia officially presented a joint roadmap for the project in St. Petersburg in June 2021. The moon base is to be initially robotic, constructed via super heavy-lift rocket launches in the 2030s. It will also host crewed missions.

Moscow and Beijing had eyed attracting ESA and its member states to participate in the project. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 signaled an end to any cooperation prospects.

China has taken a leading role in the ILRS since 2022. The project’s headquarters will be established in China. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) and its Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL) have been at the center of efforts to attract partners, at times omitting mention of Russia as a partner. Much of these efforts have, as with China’s broader diplomatic efforts, focused on the “global south.

There are now 11 countries signed up, as well as other bodies. Russian reports state that Turkey has also applied to join ILRS. Russia President Vladimir Putin signed a law June 12 ratifying an intergovernmental agreement with China on creation of the ILRS.

The European Space Agency meanwhile is engaged in the Gateway and Artemis programs. A number of its member states have signed the Artemis Accords. 42 nations have now signed the Accords. 

TArtemis and ILRS projects and related diplomatic efforts can be perceived to be forming separate groups. There are however a small degree of overlap. This includes Bahrain, an Accords signatory, recently agreeing to cooperate with Egypt to develop a hyperspectral imager for Chang’e-7.

In terms of post-ISS plans for human spaceflight—which had earlier included Tiangong—ESA has signed agreements on the Starlab and Vast commercial space stations. 

Cooperation with China will continue at least in the near future. The samples collected by Chang’e-6 are currently in lunar orbit awaiting a return to Earth, expected around June 25.

ESA will provide ground station support for Chang’e-6, as it did for Chang’e-5 through its tracking station network, ESTRACK.

The Maspalomas station in Gran Canaria, Spain, will track the Chang’e-6 spacecraft as it returns to Earth around June 25. Kourou station in French Guiana tracked the spacecraft for several hours after launch to confirm its orbit.

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...