The US state department headed by career diplomat Antony Blinken, who just turned 61, has put a serious impediment on the table for the UAE's Rashid 2 lunar mission to be carried out in cooperation with China.
The State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Directorate of Defence Trade Controls (DDTC) has brought to the attention of Emirati authorities that the Rashid 2, a four-wheel-drive lunar rover, includes US-origin components that, according to ITAR regulations, are excluded from flying on Chinese rockets.
The International Traffic in Arms Regulations, better known as ITAR - an acronym for International Traffic in Arms Regulations - issued and enforced in Washington regulate the export of defence-related goods and services, including space-related goods and services, which are intended to safeguard US technology and intellectual property rights.
The ITAR regulations contain several detailed lists of all types of munitions and ground, naval and airborne weapons systems subject to restrictions on sale or transfer. But they also include electronic systems, subsystems, equipment and components for launch vehicles, satellites, capsules, scientific probes, space vehicles and any range of military or dual-use products.
The Emirati authorities have already been warned of what they must do if they are to continue their collaboration with Beijing on the Chang'e-7 mission. In that case, the MBRSC must obtain a licence from the State Department authorising it to ship US-made technology subject to ITAR on Rashid 2.
Fear of uncovering secrets in Rashid 2
It is not easy. One of the main demands is that the director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Dubai Space Centre (MBRSC), Salem Humaid Al-Marri, would have to explain and reason out the measures he will implement to prevent Chinese technicians from gaining access to the Rashid 2 design and even dismantling it and learning about its technologies. But would the Chinese be able to do so?
A priori, it would not be difficult. Once Rashid 2 is at the Wenchang space base to be loaded onto the Chang'e-7 probe and launched on the Long March 5 rocket, the Americans are of the opinion that the Chinese spies are capable of plotting to uncover its secrets.
Professor Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard University astronomer and historian of the space programme, has evidence that the CIA hijacked a replica of the Soviet Luna 3 lunar probe for about eight hours. It did so in November 1959, when it travelled by truck to the warehouse that was to store it before being exhibited at the National Auditorium in Mexico City, and returned it to its place after dismantling it and photographing its entrails.
The MBRSC and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) have had an agreement in place since September 2022 for Rashid 2 to travel to and land on the Moon from China's Chang'e-7 lander, which is scheduled to launch in 2026.
The CNSA has opened its Chang'e-7 lunar project to international cooperation so that third countries can contribute to initiatives that require the support of Chinese technologies or operate independently, as is the case with Rashid 2.
Technical constraints to embarking on Chang'e-7
Chang'e-7 is a mission belonging to the fourth phase of China's lunar exploration programme and its main objective is to collect in situ scientific data from the lunar South Pole, in particular the existence of water ice. It is a stepping stone to the construction in the 2030s of a future International Lunar Research Station led by CNSA in cooperation with Roscosmos, Russia's space agency.
To take part in the mission, Beijing imposes a number of constraints on foreign technologies that want to travel on Chang'e-7 and then taxi across the lunar surface. These include a maximum weight of 10 kilos and dimensions of no more than 300 x 150 x 150 millimetres.
A team of 11 engineers under the leadership of Emirates Lunar Exploration Project Manager Hamad Al-Marzouki is working to meet the conditions to make the Rashid 2 rover a reality.
ITAR restrictions have not applied to previous Emirati space missions. The first was to the Red Planet, launched in July 2020, which is still operational. The second was to the Moon in December 2022, which ended in failure at the end of April.
The reason is that the Martian probe Al-Amal was launched into orbit from Japan aboard a Japanese H-2 launcher. The one that ended in disaster was the one carrying the Rashid 1 rover, sent to Earth's natural satellite from the United States on a Falcon 9 rocket and aboard the Japanese Hakuto-R surface module. A loyal ally of Washington, Tokyo is not subject to the strict ITAR limitations that apply to China, Russia, Belarus, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria.