China’s Space Dream Scores Big Win With First Mission to Mars

China’s Space Dream Scores Big Win With First Mission to Mars

A Chinese spacecraft has made it to Mars for the first time, boosting China’s attempt to be a space power on par with the U.S.

Tianwen-1 reached Mars’ orbit, Chinese state media reported at 8:57 p.m. Beijing time on Wednesday. It will orbit for several months before sending a rover to land on a large plain on the Martian surface.

China’s Space Dream Scores Big Win With First Mission to Mars

The Chinese mission is part of a flurry of visitors to the Red Planet that includes NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, which is likely to reach Mars later this month and will test technologies for future human exploration. The Hope spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates entered Martian orbit on Feb. 9.

While these missions raise hopes for a Neil Armstrong moment on Mars, speedy breakthroughs are unlikely, according to Richard de Grijs, an astrophysics professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. “Mars is the big goal but that’s going to take some time,” he said.

China’s space program has ambitious plans reaching into the next decade, including sending Chinese astronauts to the moon. “It’s a multi-year well-formed program, doggedly going forward,” de Grijs said.

Tianwen-1 is part of a broader effort to close the gap with NASA. A Chinese spacecraft landed on the far side of the moon in 2019 and another lunar mission returned to Earth in December carrying samples.

The country is poised to notch up more accomplishments this year, including the launch of the initial part of a space station.

Other private and government programs aiming at Mars have suffered setbacks.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., backed by billionaire Elon Musk, wants to take people to Mars but a Feb. 2 test launch in Texas blew up. A December test also ended in a fireball.

Last March, organizers of a European-Russian mission originally scheduled to reach Mars this year postponed it to 2022 to conduct more tests.

For President Xi Jinping, the space program provides a way to appeal to patriotism at a time when the economy is hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic and heightened U.S.-China tensions.

After China launched its most recent lunar mission in November, Xi lauded “the unyielding spirit of self-reliance as the source of power that drives the Chinese nation to strive for China’s space dream as well as the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” state-controlled media reported.

Many of China’s projects are similar to ones NASA accomplished decades ago, according to Wendy Whitman Cobb, associate professor of strategy and security studies at the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies in Montgomery, Alabama.

“They’re still not on the level of what the United States has,” she said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.