China’s Race to Mars

by Daniel Maxwell – Feb 26th, 2021

This week China made history with its first successful space mission to Mars. The Chinese spacecraft, Tianwen-1, entered Mars’ atmosphere on February, 10 and has begun sending back detailed images of the Red Planet’s surface. Tianwen-1 is not the only spacecraft to visit Mars this month, it is joined by space probes from the US and the Emirates. The three nations have been in a race to Mars over the past six months. In the year ahead, humankind looks set to learn a lot more about the Red Planet.

China’s Space Ambitions

Tianwen-1’s voyage to Mars is the Chinese Space Agency’s latest achievement. Last year, China’s Chang’e 4 became the first spacecraft to land on the dark side of the moon. In 2022, the country intends to launch its own space station. China also has plans to put an astronaut on the moon. China’s bold space ambitions are set to establish the country as a ‘major space power’ by 2030.

Tianwen-1’s Race to Mars

Tianwen-1, which translates to English as “Questions to Heaven”, was launched on July 23, 2020, from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan. Taking advantage of the close proximity between Earth and Mars during 2020 and 2021, it took just over 6 months to make the 62 million km voyage. Tianwen-1 weighs five tonne, and includes a Mars orbiter, a lander and a solar-powered rover.

The probe will now be orbiting Mars for at least one Martian year (687 days).  In May 2021, the solar-powered rover will be released from the orbiter and will hopefully land successfully in the giant basin Planitia Utopia. 

China’s rover will spend three months studying the Martian atmosphere and soil, as well as taking photos, charting maps and searching for signs of ancient life. The vehicle is also equipped with a ground-penetrating radar, which will be used to look for water and ice below the surface of the planet.

The Race to mars

Space missions by the US and the Emirates, which also launched from Earth in July 2020 and reached Mars this month, will gather more valuable information about the Red Planet.

The USA’s latest Mars mission involves a rover called Perseverance and a helicopter called Ingenuity. NASA’s rover has already landed on Mars and has send back some extraordinary images from the surface of the planet.

Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), which entered the Martian orbit one day before the China’s Tianwen-1, aims to capture a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers. The country’s “Hope Probe” will spend one Martian year orbiting the Red Planet collection.

Political Space Race

Of course there is more than just science and exploration involved in this recent race to Mars. The space voyages expeditions have political undertones, as the world’s most powerful nations compete for dominance beyond Earth’s surface.

“Competition in space is heating up,” Christopher Impey, a professor of astronomy in the College of Science at the University of Arizona, told Al Jazeera.

“Three missions arriving at Mars in one month is unprecedented.”

Christopher Impey

“The Chinese mission further demonstrates not only that they’re serious about space, but that they are as capable as the US,” Wendy Whitman Cobb said, noting that both countries’ were keen to showcase their technological abilities.

That all three nations have successfully reached the Martian obit bodes well for these and future missions. However, there is still a long time ahead, and the Chinese mission will face a tense period in May, when the rover attempts the challenge of landing on the Red Planet. If the rover’s landing is a success, China will be one step closer to being a major space power.