No one will doubt that China aims to win the new space race. Not only is it the only country to have landed on the moon in over 40 years, but it is also the first to make a soft landing on the far side of the moon, plant a flag on the lunar soil and even bring lunar soil samples to Earth. It is now also landing a robotic all-terrain vehicle on Mars
By: Steffi Paladini, Global Economics and Security Researcher, Birmingham City University. Translated by Avi Blizovsky
If we look at China's achievements in the last decade, no one doubts that China is aiming to win the new space race. Not only is it the only country to land on the moon in over 40 years, but it is also the first to make a soft landing on the far side of the moon, plant a flag on the lunar soil and even bring lunar soil samples to Earth.
The race between several countries and private companies, however, is far from over. China is now approaching Mars with its Tianwen-1 mission, which will arrive on February 10, 2021. A successful entry into orbit will mark another crucial milestone. The rover itself won't land until May.
Mars is relatively close to Earth, but it is a challenging destination. Nothing proves this better than the data: out of 49 missions up to December 2020, only about 20 have succeeded. Not all of these failures were attempts by newbies or early adopters. In 2016, the European Space Agency's Mars rover crashed on the surface. Also, ongoing technical issues have forced ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos to delay its next mission, ExoMars, until 2022.
China is not the only country approaching Mars. On February 9, a mission United Arab Emirates The Arabic 'hop', try the same income maneuver. It is not a direct competitor to the Chinese mission (the spacecraft will only circle Mars to study its atmosphere). The American spacecraft Preservation is due to arrive a week later, and it is definitely a competitor.
To complicate the situation for China, among the handful of countries that have made the complicated revenue maneuver to orbit around Mars, there is also another Asian country: India, China's direct competitor, both in space and on Earth.
The Indian Orbital Mission (MOM), aka 'Mangalyan', reached Mars in 2014 - the first to arrive on its maiden mission. This is one of the reasons why the success of Tianwen-1 is so important to China's status as the new space power: it is a way to regain control of space over its neighbor. Unlike India, this is not the first time that China has tried to launch a mission to Mars (the previous one, Yinghuo-1, in 2011, exploded on launch). However, on this occasion, the chances of success seem much better.
Space Age 2.0
Different countries have different development models when it comes to space, so the new space race is partly a competition for the best approach. This reflects the specific nature of the so-called Space Age 2.0, which compared to the first seems more diverse, and where the non-American actors, public and private, appear prominently, especially the Asian ones. If China is leading the current squadron to Mars, so is its vision.
But there are bigger things at stake. The development efforts behind China's space program are still primarily funded by the government and led by the military. According to the US and China Economic and Security Committee of the US Congress - China sees space as a "tool for geopolitical and diplomatic competition". It is clear that together with cyberspace, space has become a new basic war domain, in which the US is the main opponent - but not the only one. This means that commercial considerations come second for many countries, even though they have become increasingly important in the overall scheme of things.
China has already drawn up five-year plans for its space activities, the latest of which ended in 2020 with more than 140 launches. Other planned missions: a new space station and the coming of samples from Mars and a mission to Jupiter.
The competition against India
While the resources that the country invests remain largely unknown (we only know what is included in the five-year plans), the American estimates for 2017 put the figure at 11 billion dollars, second only to the United States itself - NASA's budget that year was about 20 Billion dollars.
India has taken a completely different approach, where civilian and commercial interests have long been dominant. According to NASA's transparency model, the country publishes reports on its activities and the annual expenditure (about a billion dollars a year) directed to its space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
The Indian space program is different in its ambitions, scope and investments, and has achieved some remarkable successes, such as commercializing affordable launch services for countries eager to put their own satellites into orbit. In 2017, India made history with the largest number of satellites – 104 – ever launched by a rocket in a single mission so far, all but three of which were foreign-built (this record was only broken by SpaceX a few days ago, with 143 satellites). Even more impressive is the relatively low cost of the Indian Mars mission 74 million dollars - less than a tenth compared to NASA's Maven. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the entire mission cost less than the Hollywood space movie 'Gravity'.
Due to geopolitical concerns and rivalries, this may change. The Indian government has published its annual report for the years 2019-2020, which shows increasing military involvement in the space sector. And more missions to the moon and Venus are well supporting the Indian ISRO plans, in case the Chinese weren't already provocative enough by wanting to make Tianwan-1 a resounding success.
The space race 2.0 is finally heating up.
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