Deep space exploration

China seeks new partners for lunar and space exploration

Russia, a partner of China, was not mentioned at the Space Congress in Paris

PARIS — China is seeking partnerships for its upcoming moon missions and deep-into-the-solar-system projects, while failing to mention the main partner, Russia.

Chinese space officials presented a series of opportunities for international cooperation in the country’s plans during a session at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris on September 21.

Wang Qiong of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said China is open to proposals for its lunar south pole landing and orbiting mission. Chang’e-7 – with a coincidence call announced by the CNSA – and later the Chang’e-8 in situ resource utilization test mission.

Chang’e-6 already includes Swedish and ESA participation in the form of a negative ion detector, an Italian retroreflector, a French radon instrument and a Pakistani CubeSat, named ICUBE-Q, Wang said.

The United Arab Emirates will also have a little rover with a mass of about 10 kilograms aboard the mission.

In deep space, China is working on Tianwen-2, a near-Earth asteroid sampling mission that will also visit a main-belt comet, launched around 2025. Tianwen-3 Mars sample return and Tianwen-4 mission to Jupiter and Uranus are still in preliminary stages and open to collaboration. The Tianwen-4 mission will include a solar-powered Jupiter orbiter and a smaller spacecraft powered by radioisotopes to fly by Uranus.

Currently, China is soliciting payload proposals to join its own, already planned and approved Chang’e lunar missions, which are to be launched before the end of the decade. This has characterized much of Chinese cooperation, with the main exception of collaborative projects with Europe.

The International Lunar Research Station, a megaproject envisioning the establishment of a permanent robotic and then human-occupied lunar base in the 2030s, will however be open to a much wider scope and depth of involvement. This will allow countries, agencies, companies and other entities to join in planning and other steps to form a coordinated set of infrastructure on the moon.

The elephant in the room was however not mentioned. The ILRS roadmap was presented as a joint project by nominally equal partners China and Russia in June 2021 in St. Petersburg at another International Astronautical Federation (IAF) event. . There was no Russian presence at the IAC due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

The project had generally been referred to as a joint Sino-Russian program until after the invasion. Wang’s presentation instead said that the ILRS was conceived in 2014 and selected as “China’s International Major Science Project Ongoing Program” in 2020.

The only visible representation of Russian potential appeared in a slide listing China’s future Chang’e and Russia Luna missions, as well as graphics of China’s Long March 9 superheavy rocket and a large Russian launch vehicle. The slide was taken directly from the ILRS manual released to coincide with the St. Petersburg event in 2021, and neither Russia nor its missions were explicitly named.

ILRS development phases. Credit: CNSA/Roscosmos

It is difficult to say whether the lack of representation of Russian involvement reflects a change in Beijing’s thinking or a sensitivity to the current geopolitical context. But China appears to be facing a dilemma for its biggest space ambitions so far.

“Whether in space or elsewhere, China has a very realistic view of Russia and partnership with Moscow has never been Beijing’s preferred outcome, as the two countries are not natural partners,” he said. said Marco Aliberti, senior researcher at European Space Policy. Institute (ESPI) in Vienna, said SpaceNews.

“This unease is well reflected in the very nature of their cooperative initiatives, notably their joint ILRS, which still remains little more than a coordinating mechanism rather than a bold undertaking with a common goal.”

“Moving forward, however, Beijing now seems increasingly faced with a difficult dilemma: turn the relationship into a true partnership or abandon it altogether.”

Aliberti says China has been keen to build a credible alternative to the US-led Artemis, not only programmatically but also normatively. But the potential gains from a partnership with Russia, which previously included harnessing technological know-how, are evaporating.

“Beyond a few launcher programs, with questionable success, military satellites and historical experience in human spaceflight, Russia has not been able to offer new and innovative efforts to the international community in a recent past and I think it will be further exacerbated by continued sanctions and the general isolation of the country,” says Tomas Hrozensky, also from ESPI.

Given Russia’s current position in the world, a partnership “may preclude new, and perhaps more conducive partners,” such as European countries, from working with China, Aliberti notes.

He adds that what could result is the pursuit of an ambiguous position that “will officially celebrate the importance of cooperation with Russia while at the same time pursuing opportunities that better serve its national interests.”