China and Russia just announced a joint plan to build a Moon base. Here's what to know

Can they do it?
Matthew  S. Williams
A render depicting phase 3 of the China-Russia ILRS roadmap.
A render depicting phase 3 of the China-Russia ILRS roadmap.

CNSA 

In the coming years, multiple space agencies will send astronauts to the Moon. In NASA's case, this will consist of the Artemis Program sending astronauts (the "first woman and first person of color") to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. For the European Space Agency (ESA), the Russian State Space Corporation (Roscosmos), the China National Space Agency (CNSA), and possibly the India Space Research Organization (ISRO), this will consist of sending astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, and gaganauts to the Moon for the first time.

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But regardless of whether this will be a first-time or return visit, the objective is the same: "We're going to the Moon. This time, to stay!" This means that, in addition to building the launch vehicles, spacecraft, and landing systems that will place astronauts on the surface of the Moon, space agencies will also be working with international and commercial partners to create permanent infrastructure on the lunar surface and in orbit around the Moon.

Examples include the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp (NASA), which will facilitate a "sustained program of lunar exploration." The ESA has spent years planning the creation of a Moon Village that will act as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS), allowing rotating crews of astronauts from many nations to participate in lunar research and exploration. Most recently, China and Russia announced they would collaborate on a competing base known as the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

This announcement, issued in Spring 2021, set off a flurry of questions and speculation. On the one hand, it was clear that this agreement was made in response to the Artemis Accords, released by NASA in October 2020. On the other, it reflected the two nations' plans for establishing long-term goals that included crewed lunar exploration programs and eventual crewed missions to Mars.

Based on the snippets of information released by the CNSA and sources within China, a picture of what this lunar base might look like is emerging. Here is what we know so far.

China and Russia just announced a joint plan to build a Moon base. Here's what to know
Human Landing System

Motivation

On March 9, 2021, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between CNSA administrator Zhang Kejian and the then-General Manager of Roscosmos, Dmitri Rogozin. The agreement stated that both parties would adhere to the principles of "co-consultation, joint construction, and shared benefits" arising from a lunar base, which would be open to all countries interested in participating.

As noted, this agreement came not long after NASA released the Artemis Accords, which sought to establish a set of shared principles "to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy." At its core, the Accords state that all signatories (be they commercial entities or national space agencies) abide by the principles of the Outer Space Treaty (1967) - the most important piece of space legislation ever passed.

Written at the height of the Space Race and Cold War, Article I of the Treaty established the following principles:

  • The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.
  • Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on the basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
  • There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation in such investigation.

The Treaty also forbade nuclear testing in space, established a common protocol for rescuing foreign astronauts, and made all national signatories responsible for any entity working within their exploration zone. According to NASA, the Artemis Accords are intended to establish a bilateral framework to ensure that cooperation and the observance of international law define the coming age of lunar exploration.

While many nations signed the Accords, Russia notably declined, citing that they (and the Artemis Program itself) seemed too political and strayed from the principles of cooperation that characterized the ISS. As Rogozin said in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda (a Russian tabloid) in July 2021:

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"For the United States, this is now more of a political project. With the lunar project, we are observing the departure of our American partners from the principles of cooperation and mutual support that developed during cooperation on the ISS. They see their program not as international but similar to NATO. There is America, everyone else must help and pay. To be honest, we are not interested in participating in such a project."

This attitude was characteristic of U.S.-Russian relations, which had declined since 2014 (due to the Russian annexation of Crimea). Matters were not helped when in 2016, the U.S. accused Russia of cyberterrorism and election interference, which resulted in additional sanctions. While cooperation in space remained largely unaffected, the undercurrents of hostility were undeniable and extended to both sides' international partners (China, the EU, etc.). This situation has only escalated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

By June 2021, China announced that it would not be signing the Accords or participating in a U.S.-led lunar exploration program as well. Instead, they would be building a competing lunar base that was open to international partners. This agreement builds on several cooperative initiatives launched in recent years. Among them are the Chang'e-7 mission, the Luna-Resurs-1 Russian Orbital Spacecraft (ROS), and the creation of a "United Data Center for Exploration of the Moon and Outer Space."

The program's objectives were detailed in the ILRS Guide for Partnership, released jointly by the China National Space Agency and ROSCOSMOS. In it, the two space agencies echoed Rogozin's earlier comments about the need for an agreement that resembled the ISS program and echoed the language used in the Outer Space Treaty. In the Preface, the Guide states:

Facilities

Another interesting part of the proposed Sino-Russian facility is the purpose and implied design of the ILRS. Section I of the Guide, "IRLS Definitions, Composition, and Development Phases," defines the ILRS concept as follows:

In August 2021, the ILRS Guide was the subject of a presentation by Jiang Hui, the Director of the CNSA International Cooperation Department. An interesting part of this presentation was the "Facilities Description," which contained more details about the station's architecture and defined what these facilities would be. On the top level, the ILRS will eventually consist of five elements:

  • A Cislunar Transportation Facility that will support cislunar round-trip transfers between the Earth and the Moon, lunar orbiting, soft landing on the lunar surface, and re-entry to the Earth
  • A Long-term Support Facility on the Lunar Surface that will support a command center, global Telemetry, Tracking and Command (TT&C) network, energy supply, operation management, and various support modules (if needed)
  • A Lunar Transportation and Operation Facility that will support various modules to move or hop on the lunar surface, explore stable lava tubes, transport cargo, and provide long-term support for scientific operations, such as excavation and sampling
  • A Lunar Scientific Facility that will support lunar scientific exploration and technology verification etc.
  • A Ground Support and Application Facility that will support launch and surface operation and research, etc.

Based on these descriptions and images included in the Guide, the design of the ILRS appears to be reminiscent of NASA's Artemis Basecamp. According to NASA's Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development, which defined the objectives and makeup of the Artemis Program, the Artemis Basecamp plans include three primary mission elements. These include a Lunar Terrain Rover (LTV) that would transport crews around the landing zone, the Habitable Mobility Platform (HMP) would allow for trips across the surface for up to 45 days, and a lunar Foundation Surface Habitat (FSH) that would house up to four crew members on shorter surface stays.

These elements are fleshed out in more detail on the NASA Blogs Artemis page. Whereas the HMP is described as a "mobile home," the FSH is described as a "lunar log cabin" (a fixed-location habitat). "On the first few missions, the human landing system will double as lunar lodging, offering life support systems to support a short crew stay on the Moon," says NASA. "In the future, NASA envisions a fixed habitat at the Artemis Base Camp that can house up to four astronauts for a month-long stay."

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"The most efficient and productive investigation, exploration, and use of the Moon can be achieved only in a broad international partnership with an attraction of other countries, international organizations, and international partners... CNSA and ROSCOSMOS jointly invite all interesting partners to cooperate and contribute more for the peaceful exploration and use of the Moon in the interests of all mankind, adhering to the principles of equality, openness, and integrity."

Multiple artists' impressions have been provided that give an idea of what the FSH could look like (see below). On the right, we see the rendition provided in the Artemis Plan Overview, released in September 2020, whereas the one on the left was presented in the final report issued in April 2020 (linked above). Also visible in the image on the right are the LTV on the far right and the HMP in the center.

While the latest rendition incorporates an inflatable module on top, ensuring that the payload is smaller and lighter for launch, the basic design is very similar. We see a platform with extended legs and a habitation module on top. In the ILRS Guide, we see a similar design for the ILRS-5 element, a tube-shaped module (which may be inflatable) atop a platform with support legs holding it upright.

In an inset image, we see what appears to be an externally-mounted vessel containing plants. Whether this represents one of the experiments astronauts will conduct with the ILRS-5 or a possible allusion to food production for astronauts is unclear. However, the former seems more likely since this is a vital area of lunar research and something China has already attempted with an experiment aboard the Chang'e-4 rover.

The image is similar to the infographic released with NASA's final report that shows the timeline and evolving infrastructure Artemis will establish on the Moon. In both, we see rovers, landers, and other mission elements that will contribute to the exploration, resource mapping, and creation of a long-term human presence on the Moon.

Crewed Lunar Program Office

Another vital bit of information on the ILRS was announced in May 2022, when chief designer Huang Zhen confirmed that China's space agency had established the Crewed Lunar Program Office. The establishment of this office demonstrated that China is serious about lunar exploration and the ILRS project. Moreover, media released by China N' Asia Spaceflight (CNSpaceflight) on Twitter provided a glimpse of the office.

Inside, a mural depicting China's plans for lunar exploration was commissioned (shown below), which showed artistic impressions of vehicles and habitats that don't currently exist. Examples included a small space station with lateral-facing inflatable modules and a cupola in the front, which may be a possible orbital element for the ILRS. As the Guide contained no images of what an orbital element would look like, this is merely speculation.

The mural also features a crew capsule resembling Russia's partially-reusable Prospective Piloted Transport System (PPTS). the Orel spacecraft. Other points of interest include a new-fangled lunar rover, a lander concept with two taikonauts standing in front of it, and (in the background) a surface habitat with several distinct modules and an observation tower.

These hints again show that the Sino-Russian plan for a lunar base is adapting elements of NASA's mission architecture. This is consistent with their plan to mount a competing program of crewed lunar exploration and their recognition that any such program will need to incorporate certain elements and proceed in a certain way.

China and Russia just announced a joint plan to build a Moon base. Here's what to know
Infographic showing the evolution of lunar activities on the surface and in orbit.

Timeline

The Guide also provides a timeline for the creation of the ILRS that is broken down into three phases that are planned to run from 2021 (when it was released) until 2035 and after.

1. Reconnaissance (2021-2025): This phase consists of already-planned missions, including two of the final Chang'e missions (Chang'e 6 and 7) and the Russian LUNA-25, 26, and 27 missions. The Chinese missions (both scheduled for launch in 2024) will investigate the topography and resources of the South Pole-Aitken Basin (and conduct a sample-return mission) and select a site for the creation of the ILRS.

The Luna missions (aka. Luna-Glob) will consist of two landers and an orbiter scheduled to launch between September 2022 and August 2025. These missions will also investigate the lunar south pole, collect samples, verify key technologies, and investigate lunar resources to create a base in the region.

The launch vehicles used in this phase are also specified and include China's Long March 3 (C7-3B) and Long March 5 (CZ-5) rockets, as well as the workhorse of the Russian space program, the Soyuz-2 launch vehicle.

2. Construction (2025-2035): This phase will consist of additional technology verification, lunar sample returns, and the delivery of massive amounts of cargo. This phase is also where joint operations will commence between the CNSA, ROSCOSMOS, and its partners to break ground on the ILRS. China's Chang'e-8 and Russia's LUNA-28 mission will coincide with these efforts, procuring additional samples and testing out 3-D printing processes using lunar resources - a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

The latter half of this phase, running from 2030 to 2035, will consist of the completion of the "in-orbit and surface facilities" that will provide energy, communication, and transportation services, as well as the technologies that will leverage other resources and allow for research and exploration. These missions, which will take place between 2021 and 2035, are designated ILRS-1 through 5, with other potential missions to follow.

In this phase, the launch vehicles will include the Long March 5 and a Russian and Chinese "Heavy Rocket." While not specified, the Chinese variant is clearly the Long March 9 (CZ-9), a super-heavy launch system currently under development. The Russian heavy rocket is the Angara heavy launch system (as indicated by the label) with four external boosters (the A5 variant).

3. Utilization (2035-): In this phase, regular missions will be sent to the Moon to conduct research and exploration activities using the complete ILRS. It will also include regular maintenance and the expansion of the ILRS by adding new modules. This phase will be accomplished using only the Long March 9 and Angara A5 rockets.

Moon to Mars?

Another key takeaway from the proposed plan is the implied architecture of the Moon base. As the Guide specifies, the "ILRS is a set of complex experimental research facilities to be constructed with a possible attraction of partners on the surface and/or in the orbit of the Moon..." The and/or are the keywords here since they allude to another important element in the Artemis Program.

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"ILRS is [a set of] complex experimental research facilities to be constructed with a possible attraction of partners on the surface and/or in the orbit of the Moon designed for multi-discipline and multi-purpose scientific research activities, including exploration and use of the Moon, moon-based observation, fundamental research experiments, and technology verification, with the capability of long-term unmanned operation with the prospect of [a] subsequent human presence."

This is supported by the description of the Cislunar Transportation Facility (CFT), which aims to "support cislunar round-trip transfers between the Earth and the Moon, lunar orbiting, soft landing on the lunar surface, and re-entry to the Earth."

In addition to sending astronauts back to the Moon, NASA's long-term plan with Artemis is to create a program of "sustained lunar exploration and development." This entails the creation of infrastructure and reusable elements that will allow for return trips and an ongoing human presence on the Moon. It will consist of the Artemis Basecamp on the surface and a space station in orbit (the Lunar Gateway) where astronauts can dock and travel to the surface using a reusable lander.

The core elements of the Lunar Gateway - the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) - are scheduled to launch in 2024 atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Development of the Artemis Base Camp, which NASA describes as "a sustained, strategic presence at the lunar South Pole," will occur following the Artemis III crewed mission (now scheduled for 2025).

The creation of this infrastructure "over the next decade will pave the way for long-term economic and scientific activity at the Moon, as well as for the first human mission to Mars in the 2030s." Crewed missions to Mars have been the agency's long-term goal since the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (the "Moon to Mars"). Beginning in 2033, these missions will consist of astronauts traveling to the Lunar Gateway using the Orion spacecraft.

Once there, they will integrate the Orion with the Deep Space Transport, a long-range spacecraft that relies on Solar-Electric Propulsion (SEP) to make the transit to Mars. Once there, they will rendezvous with a second orbiting space station (the Mars Base Camp) and use a reusable lander to travel to and from the surface. Until recently, the CNSA focused on lunar exploration and indicated that missions to Mars would happen between 2040 and 2060.

However, in June 2021, China announced that it planned to send crewed missions to Mars by the early 2030s. Just like NASA, China claimed that it would be launching missions every 26 months, starting in 2033 and that these would culminate in the creation of a permanent Mars base. This announcement was part of a presentation (titled "The Space Transportation System of Human Mars Exploration") made at the 2021 Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX 2021) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In short, this could mean that China and Russia hope to deploy their own orbiting facility to compete with the Lunar Gateway. Not only would this support transit between Earth and the Moon and to and from the lunar surface, but it might also be part of China's aspiration to send crews to Mars in the next decade.

China and Russia just announced a joint plan to build a Moon base. Here's what to know
An Orion crew capsule on final approach.

Can they pull it off?

In the current geopolitical environment, Russia and China find themselves as "outsiders" regarding space exploration - at least where NASA is concerned. While the CNSA claims to have signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with 46 national space agencies and four international organizations and is a member of the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), its accomplishments in space have been a largely solo affair.

The passage of the 2011 Wolf Amendment prohibits NASA from collaborating with China and China-affiliated organizations. This decision has prevented China from participating in programs like the ISS. Hence why China has pursued its own competing space station program known as Tiangong (Chinese for "Heavenly Palace").

On the other hand, Roscosmos previously enjoyed a collaborative relationship with NASA, ESA, and other international partners. However, the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the resulting impact on international relations have since led NASA, the ESA, and their affiliates to terminate agreements already in place. Similarly, Russia responded to these measures (and international sanctions) by declaring its withdrawal from the International Space Station.

These developments have pushed Russia closer toward China and enhanced their pre-existing cooperation in space. But is this enough to ensure an ongoing partnership between NASA's two chief rivals? So far, no space agencies have come forward yet to declare their interest in the ILRS program, relations between China and Russia are in a delicate balance right now, and the two countries have a lackluster record for cooperation in space.

Before the ILRS can be realized, the two space agencies must address numerous technical and logistical hurdles. These can be broken down into three categories, which include financial and developmental concerns, bilateral relations, and relations with NASA and other space agencies.

Finances:

This collaborative effort will require a substantial commitment in terms of time, energy, and resources from both space agencies. Whereas NASA estimates that the Artemis Program will cost $86 billion by 2025, China and Russia have yet to release a budget plan for the ILRS program. What's more, Roscosmos was facing budget issues and delays even before the current geopolitical situation, which has left them even more starved for cash.

NASA has steadily increased its budget since 2013, going from $19.8 to $24 billion annually, and is committed to spending more than $28 billion by 2027. In October 2021, Putin announced sweeping cutbacks, citing disappointing results with the space agency as the reason, which would amount to a budget reduction of 16% annually between 2022 and 2024. In particular, the development of the Angara rocket, which the ILRS Guide cites as an essential element, is almost two decades behind schedule.

Meanwhile, China's spending on spaceflight is second only to the U.S., and the nation is committed to a robust budget for its space program. However, between their desires to build a space station that would succeed the ISS and send crewed missions to Mars by the 2030s, they cannot be expected to foot the bill for the ILRS alone.

Relations:

The success of this project will require that relations between Russia and China remain stable over the next twenty years. This is a tall order given Russia's current position on the international stage. Even though Russia and China have mutual enmity for the U.S. and NATO, relations between the two countries have never been consistent. During the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet Split ended cooperation between their nuclear and space programs, forcing China to go it alone on both fronts.

Since the early 2000s, the two countries have enjoyed closer ties, but these have since suffered because of how Russia has found itself isolated on the international stage. According to the counter-state news agency General SVR Telegram, Putin became verbally abusive with Xi during a phone call in June over his apparent lack of financial and diplomatic support for Russia. This situation could lead to a diplomatic break between the two countries and the cancellation of any cooperative agreements they have.

Relations with NASA et al.:

Last but not least, there's the need for Russia and China to remain "outsiders" when it comes to NASA and its international partners. So far, their shared disdain for U.S. dominance in space has kept their alliance strong. But this could change quickly if NASA were to extend an olive branch to China and recommend they cooperate in space and on plans for the Moon.

There are several projects where China is developing expertise, and they could benefit greatly from NASA's extensive experience. These include a lunar base and a successor station to the ISS that would welcome China's taikonauts in place of cosmonauts. This would leave Roscosmos effectively isolated and marginalized and help China advance in space even further.

While China and Russia have historically sought better relations because of shared hostility to the U.S. and its allies, China has much more to gain through closer ties with NASA. China's space administrators surely know this, and the U.S. could find itself in a position to reach out to them if relations between China and Russia continue sour.

Does the ILRS have the potential to become a competitive lunar program that could lead to territorial claims on the Moon and a Cold War in space? Or is it a lot of hyperbole and political saber-rattling that no one in the international community is taking seriously? At this juncture, it is difficult to say. And this is possibly the best reason not to get too worked up about it.

Even at the best of times, it is difficult to predict what will unfold over a twenty-year period. Given the fragility of Sino-Russian relations and Russia's internal politics, it's virtually impossible to say if any alliance will last. As with other fears regarding the "New Space Age," such as asteroids hitting Earth, a Wild West in space, China laying claim to the Moon, abandoning Earth for Mars, etc. - the important thing is that we assess these problems soberly and rationally, and not allow ourselves to succumb to cynicism and paranoia.

After all, cooperation in space has historically survived competition on Earth. If there's one thing that exploring space has a proven track record of, it's bringing people from all around the world together and celebrating what unites us!