Probe on Mars, astronauts on the Moon … Why China is so keen on winning the space race


All eyes on the stars. NASA’s Perseverance mission landed on the Red Planet on Thursday, February 18. It is the third to arrive on Mars in a week, along with that of the United Arab Emirates and China. On February 10, the Tianwen-1 probe thus arrived in orbit of the planet. In the spring, it should drop a wheeled remote-controlled robot on Martian soil. A mission that will allow Beijing to pursue its ambitions in terms of the conquest of space, begun under Mao sixty years ago. The country “dreams of space,” in the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping. For The Conversation, Steffi Paladini, from the University of Birmingham, deciphers these ideas.


Given its achievements over the past decade, it makes perfect sense that China is looking to win the new space race. Not only was it the only country to send a probe to the moon in the past forty years or so – and the first in history to land a moon landing on its far side, but it also planted a flag on lunar soil and brought samples back to Earth.

However, the space race, in which several nations and private companies participate, is far from over. China is now showing interest in Mars with its Tianwen-1 mission, which arrived in Martian orbit on February 10. A successful insertion into orbit – the rover will not land before May – which marks a new crucial step in more than one way.

Even though Mars is relatively close to Earth, it is a difficult target to hit. Nothing shows it better than the numbers. Out of 49 missions up to December 2020, only around 20 have been successful. Not all of these failures were novices or first attempts. In 2016, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli Mars Explorer crashed on the surface of the Red Planet. In addition, persistent technical issues have forced ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos to postpone its next mission, ExoMars, until 2022.

China is not the only country to approach Mars. On February 9, a United Arab Emirates probe, Hope, successfully completed the same insertion maneuver. It is not a direct competitor of the Chinese mission (the probe will only orbit the planet to study the Martian weather), but the Perseverance rover, from NASA, which arrived a week later, is without no doubt.

One element makes the stakes even more important for Beijing: one of the few countries which have succeeded in the famous orbit insertion maneuver is India, a direct competitor of China in space but also on Earth.

India’s MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission), aka Mangalyaan, reached Mars in 2014 – it was the first to achieve this feat on its inaugural mission. This is one of the reasons why Tianwen-1’s success is so important to China’s status as a new space power: it is a way of reaffirming its space dominance over its neighbor. Unlike India, this is not the first time that China has attempted a mission to Mars (the previous one, Yinghuo-1, in 2011, failed at launch). However, this time the odds of success seem much better.

Different countries have different spatial development models. The new space race is therefore partly a competition for the best approach. This reflects the specific character of Space Age 2.0 which, compared to the first, seems more diverse and where non-American actors, public and private, occupy an important place, in particular Asian actors. If China is leading the pack, so is its vision.

But there are bigger issues. China’s space sector development effort is still largely government funded and military led. According to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a commission of the US Congress, China views space as a “tool of geopolitical and diplomatic competition.” It is clear that with cyberspace, the cosmos has become a fundamental new battlefield, where the United States is the main – but not the only – adversary. This means that commercial considerations are taking a back seat for many countries, although they are becoming increasingly important as a rule.

China has already adopted five-year plans for its space activities. The most recent ended in 2020 with more than 140 launches. Other missions are planned: a new orbital space station, the recovery of Martian samples and a mission to explore Jupiter, among others.

While the resources committed by the country remain largely unknown (we only know what is included in the five-year plans), US estimates for 2017 are $ 11 billion, which places China second after the United States. United themselves – NASA’s budget for the same year was around $ 20 billion.

India has taken a different approach, where civil and commercial interests predominate. Following NASA’s transparency model, the country publishes reports on annual activities and expenditures (around US $ 1 billion per year from its space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

Different in its ambitions, scope and investments, the Indian space program has achieved remarkable successes, such as commercializing affordable launch services for countries wishing to send their own satellites into orbit. In 2017, India made history with the largest number of satellites – 104 – ever launched by a rocket on a single mission to date (all but three were built and owned by foreign interests) . This record was broken by SpaceX in January 2021, with 143 satellites. Even more impressive is the relatively low cost of India’s Mars mission of US $ 74 million – about ten times cheaper than NASA’s Maven mission. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the entire mission cost less than the Hollywood film Gravity.

For geopolitical reasons, that may soon change. The Indian government has released its 2019-2020 annual report, which shows growing military involvement in the space sector. And other missions to the Moon and Venus are planned by the Indian ISRO, as if the Chinese needed even more motivation to make Tianwen-1 a resounding success. The space race 2.0 is getting more and more important …The Conversation

Steffi Paladini, Reader in Economics & Global Security, Birmingham City University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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