CNSA Administrator Zhang Kejian holds up a joint statement with Venezuela's space agency on the ILRS. Credit: CNSA

HELSINKI — Venezuela has formally joined the China-led International Lunar Research Station project.

Venezuela becomes one of the first countries to join the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). The initiative is seen as a China-led, parallel project to the NASA-led Artemis Program.

Zhang Kejian, administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), and Gabriela Jimenez, Venezuela’s Vice President and Minister of Science and Technology, signed a joint statement on the ILRS July 17 via video.

The joint declaration, named the “Memorandum of Cooperation between the China National Space Administration and the Bolivarian Space Agency of Venezuela on the International Lunar Research Station,” marks Venezuela’s formal entry into the ILRS program, CNSA stated.

The two parties will carry out extensive and in-depth cooperation in the demonstration, engineering implementation, operation and application of the ILRS, including joint demonstration of scientific goals, joint design, and more, according to CNSA.

China and Venezuela have established space cooperation, including the 2008 launch of the CASC-built VeneSat-1 communications satellite, as well as later remote sensing satellites in low Earth orbit.

“The signing of the joint statement marks that the cooperation between the two sides has moved from near-Earth space to the moon and deep space,” according to CNSA.

The ILRS project aims to construct a permanent lunar base in the 2030s with a series of stepping stone missions before the end of this decade. China plans a series of robotic missions across the 2020s as precursors, including the 2026 Chang’e-7 lunar south pole mission and 2028 Chang’e-8 in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology test mission.

China has also unveiled plans to put a pair of astronauts on the moon by 2030.

Venezuela will make its satellite control ground station infrastructure available for lunar missions, according to ABAE. It will also engage in collaborative design, technical and operational cooperation, and data management and exchange.

“This represents a unique opportunity for mission planning, guidance and definition, as well as technology transfer and joint advances in lunar exploration,” said an ABAE statement.

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro greeted the development. “Venezuela goes to the Moon, who would have thought? We are the first to partner in the project to go to the Moon with the People’s Republic of China,” according to machine translation.

Venezuela and China earlier sounded their intentions to partner up for the ILRS in late March. Marglad Bencomo, executive director of ABAE, visited China’s new, national Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL) and discussed cooperation. 

The South American nation becomes the first to formally sign up to the China-led ILRS initiative. China and Russia had previously presented a joint ILRS roadmap in 2021 in St. Petersburg. Beijing has however since taken the role of lead of the project and is setting up an organization, named ILRSCO, to coordinate the international moon base initiative.

The organizations’ headquarters will be located in the Deep Space Science City, in Hefei in Anhui province, with centers focusing on design simulation, operation control, data processing, sample storage and research, and international training centers.

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. Last month DSEL said it was negotiating agreements with more than 10 other countries and organizations.

The U.S.-led Artemis project has so far attracted 27 countries — most recently India — to sign up to the Artemis Accords, the political underpinning of the initiative.

Victoria Samson, Washington Office director at the Secure World Foundation, told SpaceNews in April that Venezuela intending to join the ILRS indicates a trend in international space partnerships.

“It does lend credence to a concern that I have that we’re seeing a bifurcation in lunar governance and approaches to lunar missions, where you are either Team Artemis or Team ILRS,” Sansom said.

China aims to complete the signing of agreements and memorandums of understanding with space agencies and organizations for founding members of ILRSCO by October this year.

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...