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China Continues Growth of ILRS Project

Shackleton Crater, a prime location for a potential outpost to be established by either US or Chinese allies.
Credit: NASA/LRO

On Friday, May 10 2024, Serbia became the most recent partner on China’s International Lunar Research Station, a multinational effort to support permanent science and research at the lunar South Pole. This project, consisting of China, Russia and several other smaller nations, has arisen largely in response to the United States-led Artemis Accords, a 39 nation coalition acting in support of the ongoing Moon to Mars program. With this announcement, it is abundantly clear that China is not slowing its rapid expansion of their own coalition, presenting the opposing Artemis Coalition with a second highly skilled group of players on the lunar surface.

The International Lunar Research Station, or ILRS, is a planned lunar base currently being led by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and supported by a small coalition of nations, including Russia. The ILRS will serve as a comprehensive scientific experiment base built on the lunar surface that can carry out “multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities including exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification, and long-term autonomous operation.” Phase I of ILRS operations will consist of several robotic missions, aimed at exploring the valuable South Pole and Farside regions of the moon, returning samples and performing orbital mapping. This phase is nearly complete, with the recently launched Chang’e 6 representing the final step in completing the Chinese-led coalition’s survey of the moon. Phase II will consist of a series of technology demonstrations, aimed at proving out the required systems for construction of a lunar base. This will include large scale cargo delivery, precision landing, and advanced power generation capabilities, and is aimed to be completed by 2031. The final phase of ILRS development will see utilization and development of the base with crew in the loop, which is targeted for roughly 2035.

An image of the Lunar Far Side, taken by the Chang’e-5T1 mission. The Chang’e 6 mission is targeting Apollo Crater for a soft landing and sample return in the coming months.
Credit: CNSA

China has used their status as a rising space power to interface with many developing nations, utilizing their space capabilities to influence geopolitical relations. Throughout China’s rise as a space power they’ve used their political reach to enable greater connections and further national interest, as was the case with the Belt and Road initiative – a massive international development effort targeted mainly at the global south, with the intention of building broad reaching coalitions for national support. Such is the case with the ILRS program, offering nations the chance to participate in a program that offers great prestige. This, too, is the case for the US-led Artemis Accords, which offers a non-binding framework for unilateral cooperation in space development and exploration. With both coalitions exercising the soft power reach of space, it is clear that the next geopolitical frontier is no longer terrestrial – rather, it has slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and set its sights on the cosmos. Russia most recently confirmed that they would be building nuclear power infrastructure for the ILRS, reaffirming their commitment to the project which has seen some uncertainty in recent years. Serbia’s participation falls directly in line with this model, with China appealing to governments who have set their sights on great national ambitions, most notably in the aftermath of the Yugoslavian dissolution. Serbia, situated in the Balkans, is not an ESA member or observer state, leaving them without larger funding opportunities for space ambitions. This has been the traditional model for China’s space diplomacy, largely interfacing with nations who have had less-than stable relationships with Western powers over the last several decades.

Nation in ILRS AgreementDate Joined
ChinaFounding Member, June 2021
RussiaFounding Member, June 2021
VenezuelaJuly 2023
South AfricaSeptember 2023
AzerbaijanOctober 2023
PakistanOctober 2023
BelarusOctober 2023
EgyptDecember 2023
ThailandApril 2024
EthiopiaApril 2024
KenyaApril 2024
TurkeyApril 2024
NicaraguaApril 2024
SerbiaMay 2024

While many of the core tenets of the Artemis Accords and ILRS agreements remain the same, there exist some key differences that differentiate the two sets of frameworks. Primarily, there is the issue of transparency. A core tenet of the Artemis Accords, the American-led agreement has stressed the issue of openness and cooperation with all partner nations, something the ILRS group has so far not presented. It has only been through official, authoritative channels that information about the program and its ambitions has entered the public eye – according to Kristin Burke, Senior China Counterspace Researcher  at the China Aerospace Research Institute. She stressed at the 2024 Humans to Mars Summit that China uses these formal, authoritative channels as the only means of communication to ensure that there is a clear, expressed target for their ambitions, something the US-led Artemis Coalition has not done. The Artemis Accords have stressed their open policy and transparency strategy, acting in close conjunction with other nations in the establishment and implementation of the Accords. Nations such as Japan, the UAE and others have played a crucial part in defining the very nature of the agreement, highlighting the far reaching multilateral cooperation and multiple perspectives that ultimately have helped to shape the accords. Another key distinction lies in the establishment of safe operational norms, something the Artemis Accords lay out as a foundational rule for engagement. Despite initial efforts to work with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, this process has so far not taken place for China.  

An image of the ILRS, as it may look in its operational configuration – featuring a variety of surface emplacements, a habitat and power generation facilities.
Credit: CNSA/Roscosmos

With two competent players on the moon, problems may soon arise when the time for operational missions begins with regards to staying a safe distance away. This practice, known as deconfliction, aims to reduce potential contested areas and ensure that each party can safely and comfortably operate, even if formal relations are not established. While both groups are signatories of the Registration Convention of 1974, the call to re-evaluate deconfliction and registration rules has been made as both parties ramp up in their efforts to return to the Moon. Most recently, ahead of the launch of Intuitive Machine’s NOVA-C lander as part of the IM-1 mission, Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, stressed the need for continued adherence to the principles of the Outer Space Treaty and other frameworks documents in the increasingly crowded South Pole region. On May 8, 2024, NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy issued a call to address the rapidly escalating issue of non-interference, asking both the scientific and industrial community to help define interference so that deconfliction strategies may be implemented as the United States and its partners aim to establish a more permanent presence before the end of the decade. 

China’s steps towards the moon are being laid clear, and partnerships are forming to support CNSA’s endeavors for a permanent lunar outpost by the early 2030s. While not the first to join the International Lunar Research Station project, Serbia will not be the last, as China continues to extend the soft power olive branch of space across geopolitical barriers. This has not gone unnoticed, as the United States and their partners within the Artemis Coalition weigh their response to a dynamic and rapidly emergent space power, one that has the potential to usher in a new paradigm at the Moon. If one thing is clear, however, it is that China is here to stay in space, with much broader and wider reaching ambitions than just Low Earth Orbit.  

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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