France may join Russia and China in effort to build lunar research station

France may join forces with Russia and China to build a research station on the Moon, the Russian space agency Roscosmos suggested on Tuesday.

The proposal came during a videoconference between Dmitry Rogozi, Roscosmos’ director general, and Philippe Baptiste, chair of France’s National Centre for Space Studies.

A press statement from Roscosmos said that during the talks, the two "discussed the prospects for Russian-French cooperation in the Guiana Space Centre Soyuz complex, and touched on possible French participation in the Russian-Chinese initiative to create the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS)."

Both sides agreed to begin "a detailed discussion" on further steps. As yet, no timeline has been announced for construction of the base.

China and Russia signed an agreement in principle to cooperate on the lunar station in March after negotiation in which the European Space Agency was involved.

The ILRS was first proposed by China as an extra-terrestrial version of the research stations operated by many countries in Antarctica. It would be used for exploration and research into water and minerals, resource use, manufacturing and the effect of low gravity on biological systems. Work will also be done on wireless energy transmission and nuclear power for space.

One particular resource that can be found on the Moon, but not on Earth, is a helium-3, an isotope that may be essential to the construction of fusion reactors.

Chinese space administrators at the virtual signing ceremony with Roscosmos in March (CNSA)

Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said the project would be "open to all interested countries and international partners", although the US would not be able to participate owing to a law it passed in 2011 prohibiting cooperation between Nasa and China.

The US is working on its own moon programme with Nasa’s Artemis and Gateway projects.

If all goes according to plan, Artemis will send astronauts to the lunar surface in the mid-2020s and establish a long-term human presence on and around the moon by the end of the decade. Gateway, which is part of Artemis, would build a space station in lunar orbit.

Meanwhile, the CNSA is planning a "sample return mission", called Chang’e-6, to carry equipment from France, Sweden, Russia and Italy. This will be followed by the multi-spacecraft Chang’e-7, which will put a rover on the lunar surface.

Those two missions are scheduled for around 2023-24. A later Chang’e-8 mission will explore in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology in preparation for the construction of the ILRS.

For its part, Russia is preparing its Luna 25, Luna 26 and Luna 27 landing missions across the 2020s. Russia and China have signed agreements to cooperate on both of these programmes by creating a joint data centre for them.

Top image: The space station is expected to be built on the Moon’s south pole (Musimon/Dreamstime)

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