Space

Russia continues discussions with China on lunar exploration cooperation

WASHINGTON — The Russian space agency Roscosmos anticipates additional negotiations with China at a conference in June, building upon an agreement on lunar exploration announced in February.

The February agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, announced the intent of China and Russia to develop an “International Lunar Research Station,” likely at the south pole of the moon. Neither country provided additional details about the facility or how it might be developed.

The details of that agreement are still being worked out, a Roscosmos official said April 2. “We have already signed an agreement with China, focusing on exploring the moon using an automatic station. That agreement has been signed, and we are just ironing out certain details at the moment,” said Sergey Krikalev, executive director for human spaceflight at Roscosmos, during a press conference about the upcoming Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Those discussions could lead to additional agreements between China and Russia signed during the conference in mid-June. “Some agreements may be planned, and whether they are signed or not would depend on the way negotiations go,” he said through an interpreter in response to a question. “We are planning some negotiations that will take place on the sidelines of the forum.”

The February agreement, as well as previous statements by the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, dismissive of participating in the NASA-led lunar Gateway project, are signs of a two-track approach to lunar exploration: one led by the United States, along with Canada, Europe and Japan, and the other led by China and Russia. While that has led to speculation of a new “space race” reminiscent of the 1960s race to the moon by the United States and former Soviet Union, any new competition in lunar exploration is going at a much slower pace.

It would also be a more complex competition, with Russia both competing and cooperating with the United States. Asked later in the press conference if Russia would also cooperate with China on that country’s upcoming space station, Krikalev first highlighted ongoing cooperation with the other partners on the International Space Station.

“We have really close cooperation with ESA, with NASA, with the Japanese space agency. We are running a series of experiments on board the International Space Station, and these experiments are yielding really interesting results,” he said. He did not elaborate on those experiments.

“When China develops its own space station, we are ready to consider cooperating with China in relation to this project,” he added. China plans to launch the core module of that space station as soon as this month. “To us, all options are on the table, and we are considering all of them.”

Krikalev represented Roscosmos, the host of the GLEX 2021 conference, at a briefing primarily intended to preview the event. Despite a new wave of COVID-19 cases in some parts of the world, including Europe, in recent weeks, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) is moving forward with an in-person event there in two and a half months.

“All decisions we’re making are being made in the context of ensuring absolute safety for all participants,” Vladimir Knyaginin, vice governor of St. Petersburg, said through an interpreter at the briefing. He argued that by the time of the conference the city will have “some sort of collective immunity to the disease” because of vaccination efforts, but did not substantiate that claim.

Pascale Ehrenfreund, president of the IAF, said she expected between 600 and 700 people to attend the conference. Because of ongoing travel restrictions, the Russian government agreed to provide special visas for conference participants who might otherwise not be able to enter the country. Participants will have to provide a negative COVID-19 test to enter Russia, and a negative test or proof of vaccination to enter the conference forum.

“We are trying an in-person conference because there is a really big interest to network again, and to discuss such important topics,” she said. “Everyone wants to meet and exchange.” For those unable or unwilling to attend in person, she said that the conference’s plenary sessions, and some other sessions, will be webcast.

The IAF’s decision to press ahead with an in-person conference comes as some other events planned for the summer are switching to an online format. The annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University will again be virtual in August 2021, as it was in 2020, because of “significant uncertainty” regarding whether restrictions on holding large in-person events will be lifted in time for the conference. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics is also moving online its Propulsion and Energy Forum, scheduled for August.

At the press conference, Russian media asked if SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk would attend the event. “We have certainly sent an invitation to him, and we are working to see whether he will take it up,” said Christian Feichtinger, executive director of the IAF.

Reporters also asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin would attend. “Mr. Putin is always welcome to St. Petersburg,” said Knyaginin.

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