China and Russia intend to land astronauts on the moon

The United States will not return to the moon alone. Artemis is led by NASA, although it includes a number of foreign partners, including the space agencies of Japan, Canada, and Europe. China and Russia, two major space giants, aren't members of the consortium, but they have their own crewed lunar aspirations. In March 2021, China and Russia announced a collaboration on the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which, like Artemis, plans to establish a station near the moon's south pole.

Indeed, the two initiatives appear to be aiming for the same basic areas of lunar real estate highland regions that provide easy access to ample sunshine as well as the water ice anticipated to be abundant on the dark floors of polar craters. According to Chinese space authorities, the ILRS endeavor is divided into three phases: reconnaissance, building, and usage. The first phase is already underway, with data from China's robotic Chang'e 4 mission, which landed on the moon's far side in January 2019, being analyzed.

Over the following few years, the reconnaissance phase will be extended by the work of other, yet-to-launch robotic missions such as Chang'e 6, Chang'e 7, and Russia's Luna 25, Luna 26, and Luna 27 probes. The roughly ten-year building phase will begin in 2026, with more robotic missions from China, Russia, and (possibly) foreign partners. If all goes as planned, the ILRS will be ready to host crewed missions by 2036 or such. To be clear, this is only a suggestion, not a formal promise. The Chinese government has not yet formally committed to a crewed lunar landing. And, as a result of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, circumstances have altered dramatically since the ILRS plans were presented last year. Warfare is costly, and Russia may wind up diverting resources away from its civil space program to continue fighting. (Many of Russia's space collaborations have fragmented in the aftermath of the invasion, but the ILRS is still aboard, as far as we know.)

Of course, Artemis is accompanied by uncertainty. For example, SpaceX's next-generation Starship vehicle, which will serve as the program's first crewed lunar lander, must be completely operational within a few years. (Currently, SpaceX is preparing for the first-ever Starship orbital test flight, which might take place in the next months.) In lunar orbit, the gateway must take shape. And the SLS and Orion must function properly. So keep your fingers crossed for a successful launch on Saturday, and that Artemis 1 meets all of its objectives during the next five weeks. If the mission fails, the Artemis program's future steps become terrifyingly hazy.

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