A 21st century space race heats up this month as China and the United States launch missions to Mars.
China launched its mission to Mars on Thursday with the goal of becoming the second country to successfully land on the Red Planet behind the United States.
Exactly a week later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is expected to launch its own rover on Mars.
The timing is based on planetary orbits, and both missions have science, not defense, goals. But experts and those involved say the consecutive launches show that major power competition between the United States and China is now taking place well above Earth’s atmosphere.
“It’s also a matter of prestige because we… kind of find ourselves going back to one of those great power competitive environments, kind of like the Cold War with the Soviets, where China would feel obligated to. show other nations in the region what their technical prowess can accomplish, ”Tory Bruno, CEO of the United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose Atlas V rocket will launch NASA’s rover, told The Hill.
“It’s really China that says, ‘Me too. We can do that too. We have this technical ability to play with the big boys, ”added Bruno.
NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover, its fifth Mars rover, is scheduled to launch next Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
When it lands, the rover will look for signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples to eventually return to Earth. The rover will also carry a helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight to Mars.
Last Thursday, meanwhile, China launched its Tianwen-1, or “Questions for Heaven” mission. The mission includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover, with China touting it is trying all three on its first visit where other countries have taken a phased approach to visit Mars.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein wished the Chinese mission the best of luck, tweeting Thursday that “With today’s launch, China is on track to join the community of international scientific explorers on Mars. The United States, Europe, Russia, India and soon the United Arab Emirates will welcome you to Mars to embark on an exciting year of scientific discovery. Have a nice trip Tianwen-1! “
But the space race comes against a backdrop of particularly high tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The Trump administration has sought to blame China, where the coronavirus was first detected, for the pandemic ravaging the United States.
Administration officials stepped up rhetoric against Beijing, imposed new sanctions for human rights violations and, last week, ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston.
Thursday, the Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo’s Appeal to Communist China: “We Can No Longer Ignore It” Pompeo’s Speech on China Contradicts Trump’s Foreign Policy “America First” The deterioration of relations with China puts American companies in difficulty MORE gave a speech in which he criticized China as a threat to the “free world”, claiming that “if we bend the knee now, our children’s children could be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.”
In military space, the alleged threats from China are one of the reasons given for the creation of the US Space Force as the sixth branch of the military.
In June, the Pentagon also released its first “Defense Space Strategy,” which accused China, as well as Russia, of “arming space as a means of reducing US and Allied military effectiveness and of restoring question our freedom to operate in space ”.
“This is an ongoing campaign with massive investments behind it in large numbers,” ULA’s Bruno said of China’s space militarization. “And this nationally prestigious show on Mars, I think, is definitely related to that.
Tianwen-1 mission spokesman Liu Tongjie told reporters that China’s goal is not to compete with other countries, but to explore the universe peacefully, according to The Associated. Press.
While the Tianwen-1 mission is not about militarizing Mars, it will have military implications, said Dean Cheng, a Chinese aerospace programs expert at the curatorial Heritage Foundation.
“The technology involved will have military implications because all space technology is dual-use,” Cheng said, stressing the tracking and communication capabilities.
“It’s a scientific mission. No one is going there to set up a Martian military base. It’s not the expanse or anything like that, ”he added, referring to a TV show and series of novels about colonizing space. “It helps to keep in mind that space technology, more than almost any other technology, is extremely fungible.”
China would be going to Mars right now, regardless of US plans, he added. The timing for both missions is based on the fact that Mars and Earth are closer than normal this year and won’t be for about two years. The United Arab Emirates also took advantage of the close-in approach to launch its first mission to Mars, an orbiter that took off earlier this month.
But China’s comprehensive space program is part of the great power competition with the United States, as well as with Europe, he said.
“China sees space as a reflection of multiple elements of what it calls a comprehensive national power. Space touches on economic capacity, it touches on military capacity, it has an impact on diplomacy, on internal political unity. It’s a wonderful advertisement for Chinese levels of science and technology, ”he said. “China’s wider space program continues at a steady pace. And this is absolutely an example of great power competition on the military side, but also on the economic side.