West eyes lunar collaboration with China

The space agencies of United States, Europe & China are coordinating efforts to explore the further. The agencies are finding its way through strict legal frameworks which are aimed at protecting national security and preventing technology transfer to China.

Background

China is set to become one of the world’s major powers in space exploration. China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 & has caught up with Russia and the US. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) oversees most of what China does in space. 

NASA has been prohibited from cooperating with China on space activities. No funds may be spent by NASA to “develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by law after the date of enactment of this act.” NASA is able to formally collaborate with China as long as it notifies Congress in advance and gets congressional approval of the specific interaction. 

European Space Agency & China intergovernmental framework agreement signed in 2005 as well as a pact signed in 2014 opens the possibility for the two space agencies to share resources on the ground and in space dedicated to training and actual spaceflight of international human crews. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which China, the US and Russia are signatories, explicitly forbids nations from laying claim to celestial resources.

Analysis

NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) are coordinating efforts focused on the recent touchdown of China’s Chang’e 4 moon lander and Yutu 2 rover on the lunar far side. The robotic probe throttled itself down on January 3 within the Von Kármán Crater in the moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin.

The agencies have agreed that any significant findings resulting from this coordination activity will be shared with the global research community at the United Nations on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space meeting in Vienna. “All NASA data associated with this activity are publicly available. In accordance with administration and congressional guidance, NASA’s cooperation with China is transparent, reciprocal and mutually beneficial,” space agency officials said in a January 19 Web site posting.

European Space Agency has had a long-standing relationship with China’s lunar exploration agenda, says Bernard Foing, executive director of the ESA’s International Lunar Exploration Working Group. He said “We collaborated with Chinese scientists on SMART 1 data analysis,”. ESA is conducting exploratory talks with the China National Space Administration regarding possible European cooperation on the following Chinese moon missions,” says James Carpenter of the ESA’s Directorate of Human and Robotics Exploration.

Assessment

Our assessment is that after cold war, space was an arena for competition, as each nation sought to prove the superiority of its technology, its military firepower and by extension its political-economic system. Presently international cooperation is the future of exploration. It is likely that in a polarised world,  participating countries would be more reluctant to the costs, risks and achievements, and learn from each other.