HELSINKI — South Africa has formally joined the China-led ILRS project to establish a permanent moon base.
Chinese Ambassador to South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, on behalf of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), and Humbulani Mudau, CEO of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), signed Sept. 1 the Memorandum of Understanding between CNSA and SANSA on the International Lunar Research Station Cooperation (ILRS).
CNSA announced the signing on its webpages Sept. 7. It follows bilateral agreements on official space cooperation penned Aug. 22 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to South Africa, which also hosted the 2023 BRICS Summit.
The agreement will see CNSA and SANSA carry out extensive cooperation in the demonstration, implementation, operation and application of the ILRS, as well as training and other areas.
The ILRS project aims to construct a permanent lunar base in the 2030s. The initiative is seen as a China-led, parallel project and potential competitor to the NASA-led Artemis Program.
China plans a series of robotic missions across the 2020s as precursors. These include the 2026 Chang’e-7 lunar south pole mission and 2028 Chang’e-8 in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology test mission.
Five major infrastructure missions using super heavy-lift launchers will be launched in the 2030s to construct the base. While initially robotic, it will later host astronauts. China’s human spaceflight agency stated this year it intends to land astronauts on the moon before 2023.
The Russian Luna 25 mission was nominally part of the initiative. However that lander crashed into the moon following an anomalous lunar orbit burn.
China and Russia had previously presented a joint ILRS roadmap in 2021 in St. Petersburg. Beijing has however since apparently taken the role of lead of the project since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China is setting up an organization, named ILRSCO, to coordinate the international moon base initiative.
China says it aims to complete the signing of agreements and MoUs with space agencies and organizations as founding members of ILRSCO by October this year.
CNSA administrator Zhang Kejian and Gabriela Jimenez, Venezuela’s Vice President, signed a joint ILRS statement July 17. CNSA has this year signed joint statements on the ILRS with the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), Swiss firm nanoSPACE AG, and the Hawaii-based International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA). Pakistan has also expressed its intent to join the ILRS.
The Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL), under the CNSA, said it was negotiating agreements with more than 10 further countries and organizations.
The ILRSCO headquarters will be located in Deep Space Science City, in Hefei, Anhui province. It will include facilities focusing on design simulation, operation control, data processing, sample storage and research, and international training centers.
The U.S.-led Artemis project has so far attracted 28 countries — most recently Argentina, India and Ecuador — to sign up to the Artemis Accords. The Accords are the political underpinning of the initiative.