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China and Russia Partner to Launch New Era of Space Competition

China and Russia Partner to Launch New Era of Space Competition

By Eduardo Szklarz/Diálogo
August 25, 2021

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Sixty years after launching the first man into space, Russia begins a new phase of the space race, thanks to its new ally: China. The two powers plan to conduct a robotic mission to an asteroid in 2024 and build a permanent base on the moon by 2030.

“China has an ambitious program, the resources to carry it out, and a plan,” Alexander Gabuev, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The New York Times. Russia, on the other hand, “needs a partner.”

The first joint Chinese-Russian mission will be to the small asteroid Kamo’oalewa, in 2024. A Chinese probe will collect samples from the star and then visit 133P/Elst-Pizarro, a solar system body that has an asteroid-like orbit with visual characteristics similar to those of a comet.

The Russians will participate in the project with scientific instruments built by the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The instruments were selected after the call for proposals made by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) for the combined mission,” reported the website Space.com.

The Chinese and Russians also plan a series of missions to build a permanent base at the lunar south pole, by 2030. The memorandum of understanding was signed on March 9, 2021, between the CNSA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Known as the International Lunar Research Station, the base will be built “on the surface and/or orbit of the moon” and will carry out multiple research activities such as “lunar exploration and use, moon-based observation, basic scientific experiments, and technical checks,” according to the memo cited by The Diplomat online news magazine.

On the first mission, a Russian spacecraft called Luna (the name of a Soviet-era space program) will be launched in October to locate ice, which could provide water for future human visits, The New York Times reported.

Mission to Mars

Chinese exploration of space has begun. December 2020 marked the first step, when the Chinese Chang’e-5 probe landed on the moon and returned to Earth bringing nearly two kilograms of rocks and sediment. Soviet mission Luna 24, which collected about 170 grams of lunar material in 1976, was the last of this kind.

In May 2021, China went further: It landed on Mars. The Chinese spacecraft Tianwen-1, orbiting around the Red Planet, launched its Zhurong rover module (motorized vehicle) on the Martian surface, completing the most dangerous phase of its 10-month mission.

With this, China became the third country to land a spacecraft on Mars, following Russia and the United States. According to analysts, this new dispute for spatial hegemony is reminiscent of the Cold War era.

“The United States, under Joe Biden, recognized China as its ‘greatest threat.’ And NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], for the first time, has just classified the country as a military challenge,” Danil Bochkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told the Global Times.

“All these movements put China under the same classification that the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] used to have at the height of the Cold War, when it competed with the U.S. for dominance in every possible field,” Bochkov concluded.

Is this the end of the ISS?

Russia and the United States have been cooperating since 1998 on the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits 400 kilometers from Earth. The ISS has hosted more than 240 astronauts from 19 countries, including Brazil, thanks to the collaboration between five space agencies: NASA (U.S.), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).

However, this international partnership seems to be coming to an end. Russian officials have already signaled that they may leave the ISS as soon as the current deal with their partners expires, in 2024, partially due to the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Department of Commerce in late 2020 against Russian companies Progress and TsNIIMash, affiliates of Roscosmos. According to Washington, these companies have ties to the Russian Armed Forces.

China, banned from the ISS, is expected to complete its own space station, the Tiangong, by 2022. The first module —Tianhe — was launched on April 29, from the Wenchang base, on Hainan Island, according to the CNSA. Tianhe is the largest spacecraft ever developed by China, with nearly 25 tons, Newsweek reported. If the ISS reaches its end-of-life in 2024, the Chinese space station will be the only operation left.