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Launch of China's Tianwen-1 mission

China and Russia partner on lunar research station

Image credit: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The Chinese and Russian space agencies are to work together on building a research station on the surface of the Moon or in lunar orbit, marking what could be a new era in space cooperation between the two powers.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) posted a statement on its website announcing the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). It said that the research base will be built “on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit”.

The CNSA described the project as a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation”. The research it intends to carry out on the station includes lunar exploration, utilisation, and observations. The timeline for ILRS construction has not been made public, and it is uncertain what stage the project is in.

The CNSA said that the station would be open to use by other countries.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed by CNSA administrator Zhang Kejian and Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin. While China leaned on decades of Russian expertise in the first years of its space programme, it has largely made its own way in the past 20 years. In 2003, it became the third country to send a human into space independently.

According to the statement, the two countries will “adhere to the principle of co-consultation, joint construction, and shared benefits, facilitate extensive cooperation in the ILRS, open to all interested countries and international partners, strengthen scientific research exchanges, and promote humanity’s exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purpose.” The CNSA has worked with many other national space agencies; only this week the French space studies organisation CNES publicly reaffirmed its commitment to working with China in space exploration.

However, the CNAS is not permitted to work with Nasa on account of a US ban on collaboration between Nasa and China, introduced due to national security concerns. This means that the CNSA is not part of the ISS. The CNSA is working on its own permanent space station, which it will launch into low-Earth orbit this year. The Chinese Space Station will be approximately one-fifth the mass of the ISS at 80-100 tonnes and will house up to three astronauts at a time in its core module for up to six months per residency. Astronauts are now in training for crewed missions to the space station.

In recent years, the CNSA has eclipsed Roscosmos with the Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme: an ongoing series of lunar missions incorporating orbits, landers, rovers, and return spacecraft. The programme’s successes so far include the return of samples from the lunar surface (Chang’e 5) and the soft landing of a rover on the far side of the Moon (Chang’e 4). The Chinese spacecraft Tianwen-1 is currently in a parking orbit around Mars with the intention of landing a rover on the surface; this would make China the second country after the US to put a spacecraft on the Martian surface.

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Arizona have presented their vision for a solar-powered 'lunar ark' which would cryogenically store frozen sperm, eggs and seed from every known species on Earth. This was described at the IEEE Aerospace Conference as a “modern global insurance policy” in the face of challenges such as climate change and asteroid impacts.

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