Russia-China to Cooperate on Lunar Space Station

On February 11, the Kremlin formally authorized the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government to cooperate on the development of an international lunar space station.  The authorization arrived days after it was reported that talks had commenced on the basis of “mutual interest” in the lunar station.  The China National Space Administration is planning to build a research station on the moon’s south pole within the next 10 years.

In an interview with the Russian media last year, the General Director of Roscosmos, Dmitri Rogozin, criticized the NASA-led Artemis moon exploration program as a “political project,” claiming that it aligns with NATO military objectives.  Since his remarks, media reports (particularly in the Chinese and Russian media) have consistently framed Rogozin’s seeming rejection of the NASA program in the context of a pivot by Roscosmos toward Chinese-led space projects (such as the International Lunar Research Station) and away from Russia‑U.S. partnerships, such as the International Space Station (ISS).  For example, Russia opted not to join eight nations in signing the Artemis Accords last October, which are a set of principles and norms for partners who wish to participate on the Artemis program.

The planned Chinese lunar station is among a number of space projects being pursued by Beijing that are intended to make the country competitive – and, Beijing hopes, preeminent — in the space sector, an objective that comes with clear dual-use military capabilities and implications.  Russia has become an increasingly close ally in this endeavor.  Whereas China is perceived to have the financial capacity to pursue ambitious space programs, Russia has implied that Beijing is reliant on Moscow’s established space expertise, technologies, and equipment – areas where the Kremlin hopes it can contribute productively to a partnership.

Since 2014, Beijing and Moscow have endeavored to make interoperable their global navigation satellite systems, Beidou and GLONASS. In 2018, Roscosmos and CNSA signed a framework agreement on space cooperation for the period 2018–2022 that stipulates collaboration in six related areas: moon and deep space exploration; developing space science and related technologies; developing satellites and their applications; gathering components base and materials; and collecting Earth’s remote sensing data.

Building on these steps, during a meeting held in September 2020, the two space agencies signed an agreement to coordinate Russia’s upcoming lunar polar orbiter, Luna Resurs‑1 (Luna-26) to assist China’s polar moon landing mission, Chang’e‑7 in 2024.  Additionally, the space delegations reiterated their commitment to establish a previously discussed joint research and data center for lunar and deep space exploration that will have hubs in both China and Russia.