China and Russia are set to sign a milestone agreement in October on joint space exploration from 2018 to 2022, sending manned missions to the Moon for the first time. The bilateral agreement will cover five areas including lunar and deep space exploration, developing special materials, collaboration in the area of satellite systems, Earth remote sensing, and space debris research. This is the first bilateral agreement to cover a partnership spanning five years. It is to be signed against the background of space exploration race the US is trying to win, so the two partners decided to join the efforts. In February, the Trump administration asked NASA to look into the possibility of manning a heavy-lift rocket mission, expected to be launched in 2018, setting the stage for a human return to the Moon.
Russia's Glavkosmos space launch operator is also working with Chinese partners on joint experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS). China was interested in buying the world’s most powerful Russian-made RD rocket engines produced by Energomash while Russian Space Systems showed interest in Chinese electronic technology.
The first module of China’s space station Beijing is expected to be launched in 2018. The project is to be completed in 2022. According to the plans, a Chinese mission will be sent to Mars in 2020 to land a robot vehicle for scientific research. Last year, Beijing put into operation the world's largest radio telescope half a kilometer (0.3 miles) in diameter. In 2014, China caught up with Russia having launched about the same number of satellites – 117 (72% increase in 2011-14). Russia had 118 launched by the time (the number increased by 20% during the same period).
China plans to send astronauts to the Moon before 2036. In March, China announced plans to launch a space probe to bring back samples from the Moon before the end of the year in what state media cast as competition to US President Donald Trump’s ambitions to revitalize America’s space exploration. The Chang’e-5 lunar probe is undergoing a final round of tests and is expected to be on standby for launch. The launch will involve new challenges for China in sample collection, taking off from the Moon and high-speed reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere, making it «one of China’s most complicated and difficult space missions», according to Hu Hao, an official from China’s Lunar Exploration Program. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for China to become a global power in space exploration. «Not long ago, the United States’ Trump Administration revealed an ambition to return to the Moon. Our country also announced a series of deep space exploration plans», said the official Science and Technology Daily.
The Chinese Chang'e 4, Chang'e 5 and Chang'e 6 probes have a lot in common with the Russian Luna 26, Luna 27 and Luna 28 lunar landers. Bringing the projects together can greatly facilitate progress.
Russia has great expertise and cutting-edge technology to share. China has its own technological breakthroughs and vast financial resources. It’s hard to extensively explore space alone, so joining efforts is a natural thing. Both partners have a lot to give to each other.
In the 1990s, the International Space Station project was unthinkable without Russia, so the US and other Western nations joined it. Russia has been cooperating with the West in space exploration for the recent 25 years but the sanctions and the general deterioration of the relations are pushing it in another direction. In Moscow’s eyes, Beijing is a trusted partner.
Visiting the One Belt One Road forum in Beijing (May14-15), President Putin said «We cooperate in space quite successfully, and there is every chance that we will increase this cooperation. Supplies of our rocket engines to China are on the agenda». According to him, «a high-thrust engine on the agenda and this gives us the opportunity to implement the idea of our own wide-body aircraft jointly with Chinese partners. There are all chances to do it».
Russia and China are working within the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) framework to create a unified system of the Earth’s remote sensing. Indonesia, the UAE, Vietnam, Iran and other countries are also considered as candidates for joining the international space research effort.
It’s not about peaceful space research only. A space arms race of sorts is underway with weapons under development or in the arsenals of China, Russia and the US Space weapons include satellite jammers, lasers and high-power microwave gun systems. The US plans for space weaponization and global ballistic missile defense (BMD) are well known. China tested its DN-3 anti-satellite missile in late July. The test failed but the program is underway. The Russia’s is S-500 Prometey is the world’s most effective weapon – the only one capable of destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles and spacecraft, hypersonic cruise missiles and airplanes at speeds of higher than Mach 5.
Russia and China have been cooperating to prevent space militarization for years but the United States has always obstructed the effort. The first ever draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), was developed by Russia and backed by China to be introduced in 2008. The US opposed the draft treaty due to security concerns over its space assets despite the treaty explicitly affirming a State’s inherent right of self-defense. In December 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a Russian resolution, ‘No first Placement of Weapons in Outer Space’. The United States, Georgia and Ukraine were the only countries that refused to back the Russian initiative. For years, Russia and China have pushed for the ratification of a legally binding United Nations treaty banning space weapons – a treaty that US officials and outside experts have repeatedly rejected as a disingenuous nonstarter. The United States does not come up with any initiatives of its own.
Putting weapons in space to gain global supremacy is high on the current administration’s agenda. It is generally believed that until now arms systems have not been stationed in space. Weapons of mass destruction are banned from space under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But the Treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit. No international agreement on non-nuclear arms in space has been reached due to the objection of some states led by the United States.
With all the foreign policy flip-flops, President Trump has a detailed and ambitious space policy. The ground-based BMD systems, the X-37B spacecraft and Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) platforms could be repurposed into instruments of war in space. US Defense Secretary James Mattis has called for bigger investments into space exploration for defense purposes. Referring to anti-satellite and anti-missile weapons in space, Congressman Doug Lamborn of Armed Services said: «Some of the technical issues around those concepts need to be researched, but there’s a lot of exciting options». The draft National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2018 envisages greater emphasis on ballistic missile defense systems and intensification of space exploration efforts.
The weaponization of space will disrupt existing arms control instruments. It may spark a devastating arms race. This year the world marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It’s rather symbolic that it entered into force in October – the month the Russian-Chinese space exploration agreement is planned to be signed. It would be right if the spacefaring nations launched talks on preventing space weaponization. That’s where Russia, China and the United States need to cooperate, setting all other differences aside. This would be a significant contribution into turning the tide away and preventing the arms control erosion that is taking place now. Meanwhile, Russia and China are entering a new phase of mutually beneficial cooperation in what one day could become an international effort led by these two spacefaring nations exchanging high technology to achieve tangible results.