Pakistan is the latest country to join China’s ILRS moon project

HELSINKI Pakistan has officially joined Chinas International Lunar Research Station, the China National Space Administration announced on Friday.

CNSA Administrator Zhang Kejian and Pakistan Ambassador to China Moin ul Haque signed an MoU on cooperation between the China National Space Administration and the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmospheric Research Commission (SUPARCO) on October 18 on the International Lunar Research Station. ILRS), according to CNSA’s October 20 statement.

The signing was witnessed by Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Pakistan’s Interim Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar. Under the agreement, CNSA and SUPARCO will carry out extensive cooperation in ILRS demonstration, implementation, operation and application, as well as training and other areas, the statement said.

The Chinese-led ILRS project aims to build a permanent lunar base in the 2030s, with pre-launch missions in the 2020s. The initiative is seen as a Chinese-led, parallel project and a potential competitor to the NASA-led Artemis program.

The announcement marks Pakistan’s formal participation in the International Lunar Research Station program. This follows the October 8 announcement that Azerbaijan has joined the project.

CNSA and SUPARCO also signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in space debris and space traffic management.

Pakistan is already involved in the Change-6 lunar sample return mission, which will launch in mid-2024. It is working on the ICUBE-Q cubesat mission in collaboration with Shanghai Jiaotong University.

Pakistan has several satellites in orbit, including the Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-1), which was built and launched by China in 2018. An experimental, SUPARCO-built PakTES-1A was also on the Long March 2C flight. It was reported earlier that CNSA and SUPARCO are working on signing a framework agreement for human spaceflight cooperation.

Russia, Venezuela and South Africa are other known signatories at the national or space agency level. The Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), the Swiss company nanoSPACE AG, the Hawaii-based International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) and the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) also signed joint statements.

China and Russia unveiled a joint ILRS roadmap in St. Petersburg in June 2021. However, Beijing appears to have taken the lead in the project following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Chinese official at the 74th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Baku, Azerbaijan earlier this month presented slides of the ILRS mission showing only the Chinese Long March 9 rockets involved in the infrastructure launch. The new slide omits the Russian super-heavy launch vehicles shown in the 2021 roadmap.

China is setting up an organization called ILRSCO in Hefei, Anhui Province to coordinate the initiative.

The Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL), under CNSA, announced earlier this year that China aims to complete the signing of agreements with space agencies and organizations with ILRSCO’s founding members by October.

ILRS signatory Type:
China Country:
Pakistan Country:
Azerbaijan Country:
Russia Country:
Venezuela Country:
South Africa Country:
Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) Intergovernmental organization
nanoSPACE AG (Swiss company) Hard
International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) Organization:
National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) Institute
List of known official ILRS signatories as of October 20, 2023. Credit: Andrew Jones/SpaceNews

The U.S. and China are working separately and competitively on respective lunar plans for robots and crews as part of renewed interest in the moon and separate efforts to assert leadership in space exploration. The competition also illustrates the potential development of individual ecosystems and programs in the international space industry.

The US is increasing the number of signatories to the Artemis Agreement, which is the political basis for the Artemis lunar program. Last month, Germany became the 29th country to sign up.

NASA plans to launch its Artemis 2 crewed lunar mission in November 2024. It will be followed by Artemis 3, which will land a crew on the moon’s south pole no earlier than late 2025.

China has announced plans to put a pair of astronauts on the moon by 2030. It will fly the Change-7 and Change-8 ILRS precursor missions in 2026 and 2028 to test the technologies required for the ILRS.

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