China and Russia have agreed to jointly build a research station on or around the moon, setting the stage for a new space race.
The United States and the Soviet Union, followed by its successor state, Russia, have long dominated space exploration, putting the first astronauts in space and on the moon and later collaborating on the International Space Station that has been in orbit for two decades.
The joint announcement by China and Russia on Tuesday has the potential to scramble the geopolitics of space exploration, once again setting up competing programs and goals for the scientific and, potentially, commercial exploitation of the moon. This time, though, the main players will be the United States and China, with Russia as a supporting player.
In recent years, China has made huge advances in space exploration, putting its own astronauts in orbit and sending probes to the moon and to Mars. It has effectively drafted Russia as a partner in missions that it has already planned, outpacing a Russian program that has stalled in recent years.
In December, China’s Chang’e-5 mission brought back samples from the moon’s surface, which have gone on display with great fanfare in Beijing. That made China only the third nation, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to accomplish the feat. In the coming months, it is expected to send a lander and rover to the Martian surface, hard on the heels of NASA’s Perseverance, which arrived there last month.
The two countries did not detail their joint projects nor set a timeline. According to a statement by the China National Space Administration, they agreed to “use their accumulated experience in space science research and development and use of space equipment and space technology to jointly formulate a route map for the construction of an international lunar scientific research station.”
A memorandum of understanding signed in a video conference on Tuesday by Zhang Kejian, the head of the Chinese space program, and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri O. Rogozin, referred to the Chang’e-7 mission, a Chinese probe expected to be launched to the moon’s southern pole in 2024. China’s lunar probes are named after a moon goddess of classical Chinese mythology.
For Russia, the agreement is a role reversal.
The Soviet Union initially led the first space race in the mid-20th century before falling behind the United States, which put the first man on the moon in 1969, a feat the Soviets never managed. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia became an important partner in the development of the International Space Station.
With NASA having retired the space shuttle in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz rockets were the only way to get to the International Space Station until SpaceX, a private company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk, sent astronauts into orbit on its own rocket last year.
China, by contrast, was never invited to the International Space Station, as American law prohibits NASA from cooperating with Beijing. That meant China “had no choice but to set and pursue its own goals,” said Joan S. Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College.
China has sent 11 astronauts into orbit since 2003 and built two smaller space stations, called Tiangong-1 and 2, that have since been decommissioned. Modules for a third station are scheduled for launch this year.
China pledged to keep the joint project with Russia “open to all interested countries and international partners,” as the statement put it, but it seemed all but certain to exclude the United States and its allies in space exploration.
The United States has its own plans to revisit the moon by 2024 through an international program called Artemis.
With Russia by its side, China could now draw in other countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, establishing parallel programs for lunar development, said Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst and co-author of a new book on space exploration, “Scramble for the Skies.”
“China has created an ideological narrative about its lunar base that offers its advanced space capacity as an asset to those who want to join in an alternative mechanism of lunar exploration and exploitation of resources,” she said.
Claire Fu contributed research.