The Asian Space Race

Taikonaut PatchBy Cody Knipfer

The Space Review

On April 22, the China National Space Administration announced its plan to launch a robotic Mars mission in 2020, to reach Mars by 2021. The project will involve an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. If successful, it will be China’s first visit to Mars and could mark the first Asian landing on the Red Planet, putting it in an elite group of nations that have successfully landed on the planet.

This announcement comes on the heels of a number of other Chinese space achievements and aligns with China’s other ambitious short-term space goals. In 2007 and 2010, China launched the lunar orbiters Chang’e 1 and 2. Chang’e 3, which launched, landed, and deployed a rover on the Moon’s surface in late 2013, was the first lunar soft-landing in 37 years as well as the first Asian soft-landing on the Moon.

Looking ahead at the next five years, China intends to conduct a lunar sample-return program with the lander Chang’e 5, expected to launch in 2017, and a potential Chang’e 6 mission in the early 2020s. Meanwhile, in 2018, Chang’e 4 will land on the lunar farside, the first surface exploration effort of its kind.

A common question for those studying, analyzing, and otherwise involved in space programs is that of rationale.Why do we go to space? What value do we derive from our activity, be it human or robotic, beyond the bounds of Earth? These questions go beyond the philosophical: their answers directly affect policy, planning, financing, and technological development.

Much has been made of the national security aspect of China’s space program, and for good reason: the dual-use nature of space assets and the strategic advantages of space supremacy are compelling to an increasingly assertive military power such as China. Yet unlike activity in Earth orbit, lunar and interplanetary exploration is of marginal direct national security value. Still, the Chinese government has evidently committed its political weight and financial resources to an ambitious, multi-element campaign of solar system exploration.

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Picture: China National Space Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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