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South Africa Formally Partners With China On Lunar Base

South Africa has formally become a part of the China-led International Lunar Research Station Cooperation (ILRS).

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Fri Sep 08 2023Written by Zac Aubert

South Africa has formally become a part of the China-led International Lunar Research Station Cooperation (ILRS).

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) was signed on September 1, marking South Africa's commitment to the ambitious project aimed at establishing a permanent moon base.

The signing ceremony took place at the SANSA headquarters in South Africa, where Chinese Ambassador to South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, representing CNSA, and Humbulani Mudau, the CEO of SANSA, put their signatures on the historic document.  The roots of this partnership were established during Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to South Africa on August 22, when bilateral agreements on official space cooperation were initially inked. These agreements were further solidified during the 2023 BRICS Summit, which South Africa had the privilege of hosting.

The newly forged agreement outlines comprehensive cooperation between CNSA and SANSA, encompassing various aspects of the ILRS project. This includes the demonstration, implementation, operation, and application of the lunar station, as well as collaborative efforts in training and other key areas.

The International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) project, spearheaded by China, is an ambitious endeavor with the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent lunar base by the 2030s. It is widely considered a China-led counterpart and potential competitor to NASA's Artemis Program.

China has a series of robotic missions planned for the 2020s as precursors to this lunar base project. These missions include the Chang'e-7 mission set for 2026, focusing on the lunar south pole, and Chang'e-8 in 2028, which will test in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology.

The most ambitious phase of the ILRS project is slated for the 2030s, with the launch of five major infrastructure missions employing super heavy-lift launchers to construct the lunar base. Initially, these missions will be robotic in nature, but the long-term vision includes hosting astronauts on the moon's surface.

Notably, the Russian Luna 25 mission was originally intended to be part of the ILRS initiative, but it tragically crashed into the moon following an anomalous lunar orbit burn.

Beijing is in the process of establishing an organization called ILRSCO, which will coordinate the international moon base initiative. The goal is to complete the signing of agreements and MoUs with space agencies and organizations as founding members of ILRSCO by October of this year. The ILRSCO headquarters will be located in Deep Space Science City, situated in Hefei, Anhui province, China. This facility will encompass a range of infrastructure, including areas dedicated to design simulation, operation control, data processing, sample storage and research, and international training centers.

In recent months, CNSA has made significant progress in building partnerships for the ILRS project. A joint ILRS statement was signed with Venezuela on July 17, and agreements with the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), Swiss firm nanoSPACE AG, and the Hawaii-based International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) have also been established. Pakistan has expressed its intent to join the ILRS as well. 

In contrast, the U.S.-led Artemis project, a counterpart to ILRS, has garnered participation from 28 countries, with recent additions including Argentina, India, and Ecuador. These countries have signed up to the Artemis Accords, which serve as the political framework for the initiative.

As South Africa joins the ILRS project, it marks a significant step forward in international collaboration for lunar exploration. With ambitions to establish a permanent moon base within this decade, the ILRS project continues to gather momentum.