Serbia becomes latest country to join China’s ILRS moon base project


HELSINKI — Serbia has signed an agreement on participating in the China-led International Lunar Research Station.

Serbia’s Ministry of Science, Technological Development and Innovation signed a memorandum of understanding with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on cooperation on the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) earlier this week.

The development was listed in a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs document published May 9, listing outcomes following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Serbia May 7-8. CNSA has yet to issue its own statement on the matter.

The pair also signed an MoU on cooperation in the field of innovation in the exploration and peaceful use of outer space, in addition to that on the ILRS. 

The China-led ILRS envisions constructing a permanent lunar base in the 2030s. This will be constructed using a super heavy-lift launcher. China also aims to send astronauts to the moon before 2030.

It will launch precursor missions in the 2020s. These include Chang’e-7 around 2026 and the later Chang’e-8 in-situ resource utilization technology test mission. Both multi-spacecraft missions will target the lunar south pole. The Chang’e-6 sample return mission—currently in lunar orbit ahead of an expected early June landing attempt—is nominally part of the program.

Chinese officials state that ILRS has a number of scientific and engineering goals. These include lunar and Earth science, astronomy, conducting experiments and resource utilization. Others are stated to involve driving technological development and laying the foundation for further space lunar exploration.

Russia this week stated it was developing a nuclear power unit for the joint lunar station, Reuters reported, citing the RIA news agency.

It is not clear how Serbia will be involved in and contribute to the ILRS at this stage. China previously stated its intent to create the ILRS Cooperation Organization (ILRSCO) to oversee and manage the project. Its establishment and subsequent meetings will likely to begin to map out Serbia’s and other parties’ involvement in the project. The development is, however, notable for a number of reasons.

“I think it speaks to the interest in getting access to the moon and not just that, but an interest in seeking out a partner that has been very effective in using space as a form of soft power outreach: China,” Victoria Samson, chief director of Space Security and Stability at the Secure World Foundation, told SpaceNews via email.

“And while the agreement was done with China, I think you can’t overlook the historical closeness Serbia has had with Russia and the ties between the increasingly autocratic president of Serbia and Putin. So signing the ILRS allows Serbia to reconfirm its connection to Russia while getting a much more tangible benefit in terms of its relationship with China.”

“The more countries that sign onto either the Artemis Accords or the ILRS, the more it is evident that it is crucial that we figure out now—while exploration there is at the very beginning stages—how best to deconflict activities on the moon and make clear what all stakeholders believe to be responsible behavior in cislunar space so that we can ensure sustainable access to the moon and its environs for the long-term,” Samson added.

Serbia becomes the 11th country to join the ILRS, following Nicaragua and Thailand in April. China and Russia formally announced the joint ILRS project in St. Petersburg, Russia, in June 2021. Venezuela, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, South Africa and Egypt signed up during 2023. 

LRS Signatory Type
China Country
Russia Country
Belarus Country
Pakistan Country
Azerbaijan Country
Venezuela Country
South Africa Country
Egypt Country
Nicaragua Country
Serbia Country
Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) Inter-governmental Organization
nanoSPACE AG (Switzerland) Firm
International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA, Hawaii) Organization
National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) Institute
University of Sharjah (UAE) University
Adriatic Aerospace Association (A3) (Croatia) Organization
Asociación de Astronomía de Colombia (ASASAC) Organization
Arabaev Kyrgyz State University (Kyrgyzstan) University
PT Universal Satelit Indonesia (UniSat) Firm
Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Sciences Organization
List of known ILRS entities signing agreements on the ILRS (Andrew Jones/SpaceNews)

The constellation of countries signing to the ILRS up appears illustrative of a wider Chinese focus on the Global South. China has also attracted a number of organizations, universities and companies to join ILRS. This includes the Adriatic Aerospace Association (A3) in Croatia.

The ILRS MoU is not China and Serbia’s first bilateral space agreement. The countries signed a memorandum on space technology in 2020. That agreement aimed to put a Serbian flag on a co-designed spacecraft. It also aimed to improve cooperation in the development and use of space technology for a range of applications.

Serbia, situated on Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, has a modest space sector. Serbian universities and research institutions are involved in space sciences and related fields and engaged in international projects. The University of Belgrade has, for example, engaged research in astrophysics, satellite engineering and remote sensing.

Serbia is neither a European Space Agency (ESA) member, nor an ESA associate member, nor does it have a cooperation agreement with the agency. Hungary, to which Xi Xinping made a state visit following Serbia, is a full ESA member. It did not appear to sign an agreement on the ILRS during that visit.

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