An artist's depiction of China and Russia's future lunar research station. Photo: Roscosmos / CNSA

China and Russia plan to set up a joint moon base by 2027, eight years earlier than originally planned. The joint moon base, called the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), will be a complex of experimental research facilities designed for multiple scientific activities, such as moon exploration, moon-based observation, research experiments and technology verification. 

China is planning to launch the Chang’e 8 lunar exploration mission as the first step in establishing the ILRS. The mission is expected to test technology for using local resources and manufacturing with 3D printing.

Presently, China’s lunar presence includes the Chang’e 4 lander and the Yutu 2 rover, whose arrival in 2019 marked humanity’s first landings on the dark side of the moon. Both lunar craft are performing scientific experiments, with Chang’e 4 conducting a lunar biosphere experiment to see how silkworms, potatoes and Arabidopsis (a small flowering plant) seeds grow in lunar gravity, while the Yutu 2 rover is exploring the Von Kármán crater.

China and Russia’s joint moon base plans can be seen as a response to their exclusion from the US Artemis Accords, which aims to establish principles, guidelines and best practices for space exploration for the US and its partners. Its goal is to advance the Artemis Program, the name for US efforts to place itself as the first nation to establish a long-term lunar presence.  

China is barred from participating in joint projects with the US in space by the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 measure prohibiting NASA from cooperating with China without special approval from Congress.

As a result, China is forced to be self-reliant in its space program. Illustrating this is the fact that China is barred from joining the International Space Station (ISS), but it is in the process of building its own Tiangong space station, which it plans to finish by the end of 2022.

China plans to use the Tiangong space station to host experiments with partner countries and to keep it continuously inhabited by three astronauts for at least a decade. 

Russia has refused to sign the Artemis Accords, stating that it is too US-centric in its current form. Despite Russia’s refusal to sign the Artemis Accords, Russia-US space cooperation remains one of the few areas of constructive engagement between the two countries.

One of Russia’s significant contributions to the ISS is the Zvezda service module, which provides station living quarters, life support systems, electrical power distribution, data processing systems, flight control systems and propulsion systems.

It also provides a docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. Despite this cooperation, Russia has threatened to pull out of the ISS in 2025 unless the US lifts sanctions on Russia’s space sector. 

However, Sino-Russian space cooperation has its own set of challenges. In terms of political will, it is possible that either China or Russia can miss timelines or suspend cooperation, due to competing political priorities, limited resources or leadership changes.

Russia may also be loath to play the role of junior partner to China, given its proud history of space exploration. Also, other governments may be skeptical about the viability of Sino-Russian space cooperation, and view cooperation with the US as the more desirable option. 

The race to establish a long-term lunar presence is driven by political, economic and military factors. Political and ideological rivalry between China, Russia and the US may be fuelling the race to establish a long-term lunar base to showcase each other’s technological superiority.

When it comes to economic benefits, the moon is believed to have significant reserves of silicon, rare earth metals, titanium, aluminum, water, precious metals and Helium-3. Also, the technologies developed for a long-term lunar presence may eventually find regular commercial use. 

In addition, the moon can potentially be militarized by states protecting their lunar commercial interests, deploying anti-satellite or anti-spacecraft weapons, or using the moon as a gravitational point to deploy military satellites or spacecraft in a manner that would be undetectable with conventional space tracking.