UAE and China to Partner on Lunar Rover

UAE and China to Partner on Lunar Rover

The UAE and China are working together on future missions to the Moon including a UAE lunar rover. This is the first space cooperation between the two countries. The UAE space program has been working closely with the United States, which is on the cusp of resuming its own lunar lander missions. The UAE is one of the original signatories of the U.S.-led Artemis Accords that sets principles for responsible behavior on the Moon, so the deal with China came as a bit of a surprise to the space community.

H.E. Salem Humaid AlMarri, Director General of Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC), signed the agreement with Wu Yanhua, Vice Administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

China has successfully put two landers/rovers on the Moon already: Chang’e-3 with Yutu, and Chang’e-4 with Yutu-2. It also returned samples from the Moon with Chang’e-5.

The UAE is already working with a Japanese company, ispace, to put the first UAE rover on the Moon. Japan’s ispace will launch its first lunar lander, Hakuto-R Mission 1, with the UAE’s 10-kilogram Rashid lunar rover and other payloads on a Falcon 9 rocket as soon as November.

The MBRSC, based in Dubai, and the UAE Space Agency, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, have long-term goals to demonstrate the economic value of space activities to the UAE, develop domestic capabilities in R&D and manufacturing of space technologies, and launch inspiring scientific and exploratory space missions. The agency’s vision statement is “To proudly forge a pioneering future for the United Arab Emirates in the field of space, and to inspire our future generations to serve the nation and humanity.”

UAE space activities started in the late 1990s with the Thuraya and Yahsat communications satellite companies, but recently have been expanding into space science and exploration. The Emirates Mars Mission, also called Hope, launched in 2020, became the first Arab satellite to orbit Mars in February 2021. A testament to international cooperation, the program was funded and managed by the UAE, but the spacecraft was built by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder. LASP, Arizona State University and the University of California at Berkeley had roles in building its scientific instruments. EMM/Hope was launched by Japan’s H-IIA rocket.

The UAE also is involved in human spaceflight and has a four-person astronaut corps. Hazzaa AlMansoori became the first UAE astronaut in 2019, launching to the International Space Station for a short-duration mission on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Another UAE astronaut, Sultan AlNeyadi, will fly to the ISS next year on NASA’s Crew-6 mission for a long-duration mission under an agreement with Axiom Space.

The UAE astronaut corps:  Sultan AlNeyadi, Hazzaa AlMansoori, Nora AlMatrooshi, and Mohammad Almulla. Photo Credit: Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

The UAE has lunar aspirations, too. In October 2020, it was one of the first eight signatories of the Artemis Accords, a set of principles the United States expects countries to adopt if they want to participate in the U.S.-led Artemis program of lunar exploration. More countries have signed since then. The total is currently 21.

NASA’s Artemis program involves not only human lunar landings beginning in 2025, but robotic landers and rovers developed through Public-Private Partnerships as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The first CLPS mission could launch as soon as the end of this year.

The announcement of the UAE’s decision to partner with China on a lunar rover prompted a surprised reaction in the space community because signing the Artemis Accords suggested they planned to work with the United States. China and the United States are often portrayed as competing against each other in space, including in a Moon race.

The Accords do not prohibit signatories from working with non-signatories, however.

Mike Gold, who spearheaded development of the Accords when he was at NASA, told that he doesn’t see a disconnect. Now Executive Vice President for Civil Space and External Affairs at Redwire, he said there is nothing that prevents signatories from working with any other nation.

Mike Gold. Photo credit: Redwire

There is nothing in the Accords that prevents countries from working with different nations. Again, it’s a commitment that the nation that signs the Accords conducts itself in a manner that supports a future in space of peace and prosperity. … You’re only committing relative to your own activities. …. It’s a political commitment by the nation that signs that their activities support the norms of behavior, such as transparency, interoperability, deconfliction of activities, safety, the free and open release of information. So long as the nation that signs continues to abide by those principles within their activities, they are in keeping with the Accords.

Gold added he has no doubt the UAE will abide by the Accords “which they themselves played a large part in developing” and perhaps could even influence others to join.

He also said he’s heard rumors China and Russia, who have an agreement to jointly create an International Lunar Research Station on the Moon, are developing their own version of the Accords and expects it to be quite similar. “The more countries that sign the Accords or have their own agreements that replicate or echo the principles of the Accords, that’s exactly the influence that we were hoping the Accords would have.”

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