In the coming years, multiple space agencies will be sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the closing days of the Apollo Program. For NASA, this will represent the long-awaited “return to the Moon,” while every other space agency will see it as a tremendous step for their space programs. One thing they all have in common is that this time around, the goal is to build the necessary infrastructure that will allow for a long-term human presence.
However, amid all the excitement of this approaching moment in history are concerns about the lack of an international framework that will ensure our efforts are for the sake of “for all humankind.” Whereas NASA is seeking partners for its Artemis Program through bilateral agreements, Russia and China are pursuing an agreement of their own. They call it the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), and they too are looking for partners in this endeavor.
The detailed plan for the ILRS was made public with the release of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) Guide for Partnership, a document prepared by the China National Space Agency (CNSA) on June 16th, 2021. As the first volume in what is clearly an evolving mission architecture, the Guide lays out the purpose and intent of the Sino-Russian agreement and establishes a roadmap and a timeline for the ILRS’ development.
According to the Guide, the ILRS represents a merger of Russia and China’s plans for lunar exploration, something that has been in the works for many years. In 2019, the two countries signed bilateral agreements to establish a common data center for lunar and deep-space exploration. They also agreed to cooperate with their respective Chang’e 7 and Luna 26, both of which will explore the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin in 2024. As is stated in the Preface to the Guide:
“Considering the fruitful experience from the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation in the areas of space technology, space science and space application, China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” (ROSCOSMOS) jointly initiated the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) based on their [respective] existing lunar exploration plan.
“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 international partners to cooperate and contribute more for the peaceful exploration and use of Moon in the interests of all humankind, adhering to the principles of equality, openness and integrity.”
In this respect, the Guide constitutes the official reply of China and Russia to the Artemis Accords, the series of bilateral agreements designed to establish common principles for lunar exploration. The Accords are grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the historic charter that established that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”
Yutu rover emblazoned with Chinese Flag as seen by the Chang’e 3 lander on the moon on Dec. 15th, 2013. Credit: China Space
To date, twelve countries have signed the Accords, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, South Korea, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil. However, when the Accords were first announced in May of 2020, Roscosmos director-general Dmitry Rogozin stated they were “US-centric” and strayed too far from the framework for the ISS. As such, Russia would not participate.
The following October, during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Rogozin went on to say:
“The most important thing here would be to base this program on the principles of international cooperation that we’ve all used. If we could get back to considering making these principles as the foundation of the program, then Roscosmos could also consider its participation.”
On March 3rd, 2021, Russian and China made it clear they intended to follow when they announced that they would be partnering to create an ILRS, which they described as “a comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit.” With the release of the Guide, Russia and China have made the details of their plan public for the first time.
Similar to the Artemis Program, the ILRS calls for the creation of multiple facilities to enable long-term missions to the lunar surface. For Artemis, one of the most vital components is the Lunar Gateway, an orbital habitat that will provide a dock for the Orion spacecraft. The next is the Human Landing System (HLS), a reusable lunar lander that will carry astronauts to and from the surface. Last, there is the Artemis Base Camp that will support the long-term exploration of the surface.
Timeline of the Artemis Program. Credit: NASA
China and Russia have a similar idea in mind for the ILRS, which is defined thusly in the Guide. [Note: some corrections appear in brackets due to translation issues]:
“[The] ILRS is a complex experimental research [facility] to be constructed with [the] possible [involvement] of partners on the surface and/or in orbit of the Moon. [It is] 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 operations with the prospect of subsequent human presence.”
According to the design, five facilities will make up the ILRS, starting with the Cislunar Transportation Facility (CLF) – an orbital station that mirrors the purpose of the Gateway. The second is the Support Facility on a lunar surface (similar to the Artemis Base Camp) that will include a command center, a global Telemetry, Tracking, and Command (TT&C) network, an energy supply system, a thermal management system, and various support modules.
The third is the Lunar Transportation and Operation Facility (LTOF), where lunar vehicles will be stowed and maintained when not in use. This will include transporting cargo to other facilities, conducting exploration missions on the surface, or missions to explore the interior of stable lava tubes. The fourth is the Lunar Scientific Facility, which will support lunar science operations on the surface, in-orbit, or in deep space.
The fifth and final facility mentioned is the Ground Support and Application Facility (GSAF), which is intended to offer operational support to communications and missions. It will also serve as a data center for lunar and deep-space missions, which China and Russia previously agreed to establish as part of their joint lunar efforts.
Artist’s conception of the ILRS. Credit: CNSA
Timeline & Objectives
Overall, the Guide lays out the eight objectives for the ILRA, which are similar to what NASA hopes to accomplish with the Artemis Program. They include the characterization of lunar topography, geomorophorology, and the geological structure of the surface. In addition, the joint Chinese-Russian program will seek to characterize the physics and chemistry of lunar materials and the body’s internal structure to get a better understanding of its geological record.
Beyond that, the IRLS will serve as a base for conducting lunar astronomy and Earth observation, in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), and vital biological and medical researcher. These objectives and the development of the ILRS itself are to be met during a three-phase process that will unfold between today and 2035. These include the Reconnaissance, Construction, and Utilization phase, and each incorporates future missions into their planning.
Phase I – Reconnaissance (2021 to 2025)
This is currently underway and is expected to last until mid-decade. The objectives in this phase include exploring the South Pole-Aitken Basin for potential sites for the ILRS, as well as refining the design of the base itself. Another important objective is the verification of technologies that will allow for precise soft landings in the southern polar region. Past and future missions that will (have) contributed are also indicated.
On the Chinese side, these include the Chang’e-4, Chang’e-6, and Chang’e-7 missions. The Chang’e-4 mission, which arrived on the Moon in 2018 and is still operational, consists of the Chang’e Lander, the Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit 2) rover, and Queqiao relay satellite. The missions will be launched sometime in 2023/2024 and will return samples from the Moon’s southern polar region and scout out locations for a base.
Timeline for the development of the ILRS. Credit: CNSA
On the Russian side, missions related to the ILRS include the Luna-25, Luna-26, and Luna-27, consisting of two landers and one orbiter (Luna 26). These missions will launch beginning in October 2021 (Luna-25), followed by the second and third in 2024 and August 2025 (respectively). If all goes well, China and Russian will be able to begin the next phase of operations by the middle of this decade.
Phase II – Construction (2025 to 2030)
At this point, one of the main goals will be the verification of technologies related to the command center of the ILRS. Similarly, the samples obtained by the Chang’e-6 and Chang’e-7 missions will be returned to Earth for analysis, which will give mission planners a better idea of where the safest and richest resource environment can be found. This will be followed by the delivery of massive amounts of cargo to build the base and the commencement of joint operations.
Missions of note in this phase include China’s Chang’e-8 mission that will launch by 2027. This mission will test technologies like 3D regolith printing and others necessary for the construction of the ILRS. Russia will also be sending its Luna-28 mission that year, a sample return mission that (like Chang’e 6 and 7) will obtain regolith from the southern polar region to determine its composition and the presence of resources.
Phase III – Utilization (2030 to 2035)
This final phase will involve the completion of all in-orbit and surface facilities that provide energy, communication, research, exploration, and transport services. It will also involve the verification of all ISRU-related and other potential technologies. Once the ILRS is complete, China and Russia hope to maintain and expand it as needed. This phase will involve five jointly-developed IRLS missions to establish the base architecture:
- IRLS-1 – establishment of the command center, basic energy, and telecommunications facilities
- IRLS-2 – establishment of lunar research exploration facilities (sample collection, lunar physics, geology, lava tubes)
- IRLS-3 – establishment of lunar ISRU technology verification facilities
- IRLS-4 – verification of general technologies like biomedical experiments, sample collection, and return
- IRLS-5 – establishment of lunar-based astronomy and Earth observation facilities
Illustration of NASA astronauts on the lunar South Pole. Credit: NASA
The Guide also establishes that partner organizations will have the opportunity to conduct their own missions as part of each phase. Those missions are to conform to the objectives of each phase in question, with possible roles ranging from assisting with exploration to the construction of necessary infrastructure in orbit and on the surface, and the creation of base facilities. As it is summarized in the Guide:
“All Partners are encouraged to join ILRS project based on their own situation. Any Partner willing to contribute to the ILRS, through a jointly coordinated negotiation with China and Russia, can participate including co-lead status in any part of the project. The objective, plan, interface, standards, interoperability and scientific application of the participating project(s) or missions shall be aligned with generation architecture and functions of ILRS.”
The Guidelines and Opportunities for these partnerships are laid out in the last two sections of the Guide. The duties of prospective partners are spelled out using a five-tiered alphabetic classification system. For Category A: Space Mission Cooperation, partners are asked to contribute to the “development of the general architecture, scientific objectives, road-map of ILRS, and participate with scientific or engineering missions of ILRS.”
Those partners classified as Category B. Space System Cooperation, must cooperate with China and/or Russia on one or more space systems based on the general architecture and functions of the ILRS. Examples include the ILRS’s power system, a launcher system for another party’s spacecraft, or an independent lunar probe to piggyback on a CNSA or Roscosmos mission. Alternately, they can choose to participate in one or more of the missions led by the CNSA or Roscosmos.
Artist’s impression of surface operations on the Moon. Credit: NASA
For Category C. Subsystem Cooperation, partners will be required to develop one or more space subsystems depending on the specific mission or ILRS system. Much the same is true for Category D. Equipment Cooperation, where partners will provide one or more sets of equipment based on the defined mission or ILRS subsystem. Last, Category E. Ground and Application Cooperation applies to partners cooperating on the building of the CLF, LTOF, and/or GSAF.
Overseeing these partnerships is the Joint Working Group established by the CNSA and Roscosmos, which has designated subgroups for handling legal affairs, scientific objectives, and engineering objectives. Specific opportunities for collaborating on various missions are also laid out, as is a list of contacts for interested parties.
One thing that is abundantly clear from this Guide is the similarities it has to the Artemis Program and the Artemis Accords. These are evident in terms of the mission architecture, but also in terms of the stated purpose of the joint venture and the desire to forge partnerships. As noted, the language used in the preface is indicative of the Outer Space Treaty, especially where it states that the overall aim is “the peaceful exploration and use of the Moon in the interests of all humankind.”
As a comparison, consider Section 1 of the Artemis Accords (Purpose & Scope). “Adherence to a practical set of principles, guidelines, and best practices in carrying out activities in outer space is intended to increase the safety of operations, reduce uncertainty, and promote the sustainable and beneficial use of space for all humankind.”
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credits: NASA
In both cases, the language is an attempt to call forth the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty. However, as many critics have stated, the Artemis Accords suffer from the fact that they are tied to a specific space agency and program. This was certainly the basis of Rogozin and Russia’s resistance when the Accords were first announced, hence why Russia and China have come together to do the same.
In short, they have decided to establish a set of bilateral agreements that would allow others to participate in their program of lunar exploration. While it’s not clear what the long-term implications of this will be, it could possibly lead to tensions and territorial disputes down the road. After all, one of the hallmarks of the current era of space exploration is its plurality, where multiple space agencies (and commercial space) are involved instead of two competing superpowers.
But when three of the five major space powers create two competing frameworks and ask others to join them, one can be forgiven for concluding that there’s a new Space Race in town! It also makes the need for a truly international legal framework – as advocated by the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) – all the more pressing. If we truly want our future in space to be “for the good of all humankind,” steps need to be taken to prevent it from becoming the “Wild West 2.0.”
Further Reading: CNSA