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China’s Lunar Base Project: Beijing’s Key Ally In S.America Could Become 1st Country To Join ILRS

China has invited a South American country to participate in its lunar research station project to expand international collaboration and establish a research base on the Moon.  

The invitation reflects China’s ongoing efforts to secure partners for its space exploration goals. China’s International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) is scheduled to be built in the early 2030s. 

On March 30, Marglad Bencomo, the executive director of the Venezuelan Bolivarian Agency for Space Activities (ABAE), visited China’s newly established national Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL) to engage in discussions about potential cooperation and exchanges between the two organizations, reported Space News. 

During her visit to DSEL, Bencomo met with Wu Yanhua, the current executive vice chairman of DSEL and former deputy director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA). 

According to a DSEL statement, China and Venezuela thoroughly discussed international cooperation in the sphere of deep space research.

DSEL’s Wu Yanhua and ABAE Executive Director Marglad Bencomo held a model of the Zhurong rover on March 30, 2023. (Credit: DSEL)

Bencomo expressed Venezuela’s readiness to expeditiously sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China, to advance the development of international lunar research stations jointly, the statement added. 

The ABAE has been invited to participate in an international forum hosted by China’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL) on April 24, the country’s national “space day” commemorated yearly since 2016. 

The event may be a suitable platform for signing the MoU between the two countries. 

In June 2021, China and Russia unveiled their ambitious plan to collaborate on establishing a joint International Lunar Research Station at the south pole of the Moon. 

The planned project envisions the creation of a crewed base the two nations will mainly operate. China and Russia are striving to find partners for this project, with China taking the lead in this effort. 

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China’s Ambitions To Counter NASA’s Artemis Program

If it confirmed its participation, Venezuela would become the first nation to participate in this project. The joint International Lunar Research Station project spearheaded by China and Russia is set to compete with the NASA-led Artemis Program. 

Currently, 23 countries have pledged their support for the United States Artemis program by signing the Artemis Accords, which serve as the diplomatic foundation for the initiative.

Beijing has recently developed and sent Venezuela’s satellites into orbit. However, considering the significant contrast in space capabilities between the two countries, experts believe Venezuela’s contribution to the International Lunar Research Station is more symbolic.

The potential signing of an MoU between China and Venezuela for the ILRS project also underscores a growing trend in international partnerships in space. There is an increasing apprehension that a division among the space-faring nations is emerging in lunar governance and strategies for lunar missions. 

Countries increasingly choose to align themselves with the United States Artemis Program or the China-Russia-led International Lunar Research Station. 

A render depicting phase 3 of the China-Russia ILRS roadmap. Credit: CNSA

On April 6, the DSEL published a statement regarding a visit by Carlos Moura, the president of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), to China, when the two sides focused on cooperation regarding the International Lunar Research Station. 

During the visit, Wu expressed his hopes for the participation of BRICS and Latin American countries in the project. Brazil has already signed the Artemis Accords, which indicate its support for the NASA-led program. 

Meanwhile, China appears to have difficulty luring partners to the ILRS. Before the invasion of Ukraine, the project was commonly known as a collaborative effort between China and Russia, but the reference to Russia’s involvement was dropped later.

During the International Astronautical Congress in Paris in September 2022, China invited attendees to participate in the International Lunar Research Station project. However, there was no mention of Russia’s involvement in the initiative.

China has been striving to develop a strong rival to the US-led Artemis, both from a programmatic and a normative standpoint. But, previously anticipated benefits from working with Russia, such as access to its technological know-how, are gradually fading.

China is developing a pair of super heavy-lift launch vehicles to carry astronauts to the Moon and conduct important infrastructure missions there.

That said, Venezuela’s potential participation in the International Lunar Research Station project would represent a significant milestone for China’s space ambitions.

It could also serve as a catalyst for other countries to consider joining the initiative, further advancing China’s efforts to establish a long-term presence on the Moon.

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