China’s Mars mission is a glimpse into its space ambitions. But we’re not in a space race yet – ABC News

NASA is set to launch its fourth Mars rover mission today.

The mission includes a micro-helicopter that will attempt the first flight on the red planet.

But by the time it arrives around March next year, another rover from China will be preparing to touch down.

Both missions have prompted a great deal of speculation about a new 21st century space race.

Last time it was the world's two biggest superpowers, Russia and the United States, competing to send a man to the Moon.

But this time another major superpower has entered the mix.

Perseverance as the US rover is called is part of an ambitious long-term NASA program to capture ground samples and transport them back to earth, where they can be studied in unprecedented detail.

The mini-helicopter experiment aims to see whether it's possible to carry out close-range aerial surveys of Mars covering more ground than a rover could.

China's mission, on the other hand, is ambitious in other ways.

NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates are going to Mars. Here's a quick look at each of the missions.

The Tianwen-1 probe named after a classic poem titled 'heavenly questions' blasted off from China's southern island Hainan last week and seeks to narrow the technological gap with the US by decades.

China's military-led space program is aiming to achieve three 'firsts' a Mars orbiter, a lander and a rover all in one mission.

"China has now joined the Mars space club," Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Fu Song, told the ABC.

"But China doesn't want to compete with the US the US has the most advanced technology."

The Tianwen-1 probe is the latest in a steady program of space missions helping China become a major space power.

In 2003, China became only the third nation to successfully carry out human spaceflight.

Since then it has launched two space laboratory modules, called Tiangong.

And in 2018, China became the only country to successfully land a probe on the far side of the moon.

The mission was a technologically difficult feat given communication signals with Earth have to be bounced off satellites.

The various missions aim to build towards China independently operating a manned space station in low orbit within a few years.

If successful, it may become the only space lab, with doubts over whether the International Space Station will be replaced once it is decommissioned later this decade.

China's lunar goals over the next decade also include the possible establishment of a science research post on the south pole of the moon.

The project will potentially be built using 3D printing technology, although public details are scarce.

"Success in today's mission forms the vital base for success in our next missions," deputy director of China's Space Administration Wu Yanhua told State TV after the Tianwen-1 launch.

"If the entire program is successful, it will be a major milestone for China."

Analysts say the rapid strides China's space scientists and engineers are making doesn't mean the dawn of a new space 'race'. At least, not yet, anyway.

Are you across the Red Planet or will our quiz leave you red-faced?

Instead, it suggests we are about to enter a new 'golden era' of space exploration.

Another entrant to Mars exploration the United Arab Emirates also recently launched an orbiting satellite with the technological help of the US.

Along with China, the mission marks a significant change in the global space field, which has so far been dominated by the US and Russia.

But landing on Mars remains the most difficult challenge.

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And as such, according to Dean Cheng a China space and military analyst at US think tank The Heritage Foundation we are still some way off comparing China's space program to the US.

"What this does is it puts China on the map as only the third nation to send a probe to Mars," Mr Cheng told the ABC.

"But you are comparing apples and kumquats. This is a major moment for Chinese space science it's their first interplanetary probe going beyond the Earth's moon system.

"But we have to keep in mind the US was able to land probes on Mars back in the 1970s and along with the Russians had Martian orbiters before that."

Despite the recent successes of China's space missions, experts also warn the chances of pulling off all three goals of the Tianwen-1 mission will be difficult.

"Only NASA has managed to land safely on the Martian surface," said space journalist Andrew Jones, who is monitoring China's space program.

"The Europeans have failed, the Russians and Soviets have failed, everything has to go perfectly.

"For a first attempt, it's a tall order."

By contrast, Perseverance will be the fifth rover to land on Mars after missions in 1997, 2004 (which landed two rovers) and 2012.

The US banned cooperation with China on space in 2011 due to concerns China would gain access to American technologies and apply them to military use.

Beijing has long argued against the ban and has largely cooperated with Russia and Germany instead.

The US restriction highlights that despite its technological lead, competition in space will be a major area of rivalry in future.

One advantage China has is that its space program isn't subject to the whims of changing political administrations.

"At the moment, at least with the current administration, the US is aiming to go to the moon with astronauts this decade," Jones said.

"That's something which is way beyond the reach of Chinese capabilities."

The question is, for how long?

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China's Mars mission is a glimpse into its space ambitions. But we're not in a space race yet - ABC News

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