China and Russia have announced that they will jointly build a lunar research station, possibly on the moon's surface, marking the start of a new era in space cooperation between the two countries.
A statement posted on the website of the China National Space Administration on Wednesday said the International Lunar Research Station would also be open to use by other countries, but gave no timeline for its construction.
It described the project as a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation.” The station would be “built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit that will carry out ... scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification," the statement said.
It said a memorandum of understanding on the project was signed Tuesday by Zhang Kejian, administrator of the China National Space Administration, and Russian space agency Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin.
China drew heavily on Russian expertise in the early years of its space programme but has largely forged its own path since launching its first crewed mission in 2003. Despite that, China's Shenzhou spaceships closely resemble Russia's Soyuz capsules and the CNSA has worked with countries around the world, apart from the US Congress bans almost all contacts between NASA and China over concerns about technology theft and the secretive, military-backed nature of China's space programme.
Russia and China will “adhere to the principle of co-consultation, joint construction, and shared benefits,' facilitate extensive cooperation in the ILRS, open to all interested countries and international partners, strengthen scientific research exchanges, and promote humanity's exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purpose," the Chinese statement said.
Russia is a participant in the International Space Station but its space programme has been somewhat eclipsed by those of China, the US, India and others. In its most recent development, Russia successfully test-launched its heavy lift Angara A5 space rocket for the second time in December after lengthy delays and technical problems.
China has planned four crewed missions this year to work on its first permanent orbiting space station, the core module of which could be launched as soon as next month.
China has already launched two smaller experimental space stations, placed a rover on the little-explored far side of the moon in 2019 and has a spacecraft, the Tianwen-1, in a parking orbit around Mars in anticipation of landing a rover on the surface in the coming months. If it succeeds, China would become only the second country after the US to put a spacecraft on Mars.
Since its launch on July 23, 2020, the Mars probe has captured an image showing both Earth and the Moon, as well as taking several selfies. Tianwen-1 probe, weighing about five tonnes, consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. It is designed to complete orbiting, landing and roving in one mission.
At the moment, the Tianwen-1 probe is surveying potential landing sites, using a high-resolution camera to prepare for the landing in May, officials said.
After the landing, the rover will be released to conduct scientific exploration with an expected lifespan of at least 90 Martian days (about three months on Earth), and the orbiter, with a design life of one Martian year (about 687 days on Earth), will relay communications for the rover while conducting its own scientific detection, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Tianwen-1 means ‘Questions to Heaven’ and its name comes from a poem written by Qu Yuan (about 340-278 BC), one of the most well-known poets of ancient China.
The US, Russia, India and the EU have so far succeeded in sending missions to Mars regarded as the most complex space mission. India became the first Asian country to have successfully launched its Mars orbiter mission Mangalyaan which has entered the orbit of the red planet in 2014. India also became the first country to have entered the Martian orbit in its first attempt.