A 21st century space race is heating up this month as both China and the United States launch missions to Mars.

China launched its Mars mission Thursday in a bid to become the second country to successfully land on the Red Planet behind only the United States. 

Exactly a week later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is scheduled to launch its own Mars rover.

The timing is based on planetary orbits, and both missions have science, not defense, goals. But experts and those involved say the back-to-back launches show the great power competition between the United States and China is now playing out far above the earth’s atmosphere.

“It is also about prestige because we … find ourselves kind of moving back into one of these great power competition environments, not unlike the Cold War with the Soviets, where China would feel compelled to show other nations in the region what their technical prowess can accomplish,” Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose Atlas V rocket will launch the NASA rover, told The Hill.

“It’s really about China saying, ‘Me too. We can do that too. We have this technical capability to play with the big boys,’” Bruno added.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover, its fifth Mars rover, is slated to launch this coming Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

When it lands, the rover will search for signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples to possibly return to Earth. The rover will also be carrying a helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on Mars.

This past Thursday, meanwhile, China launched its Tianwen-1, or “Questions for Heaven,” mission. The mission includes an orbiter, lander and rover, with China touting that it is trying all three in its first go where other countries have taken a staggered approach to visiting Mars.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstein wished the Chinese mission well, tweeting Thursday that “with today’s launch, China is on its way to join the community of international scientific explorers at Mars. The United States, Europe, Russia, India, and soon the UAE will welcome you to Mars to embark on an exciting year of scientific discovery. Safe travels Tianwen-1!”

But the space race comes amid a backdrop of particularly elevated tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The Trump administration has sought to blame China, where the coronavirus was first detected, for the pandemic that is ravaging the United States.

Administration officials have ramped up rhetorical broadsides against Beijing, levied new sanctions for human rights abuses and, this past week, ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston shuttered.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he blasted China as a threat to the “free world,” saying that “if we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.”

In the military space sphere, alleged threats from China are one of the stated reasons for the creation of the U.S. 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 having “weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space.”

“It’s an ongoing campaign with massive investment behind it in large numbers,” ULA’s Bruno said of Chinese space weaponization.  “And this show of national prestige on Mars, I feel is certainly connected to that.”

The spokesman for the Tianwen-1 mission, Liu Tongjie, told reporters China’s aim is not to compete with other countries, but to peacefully explore the universe, according to the Associated Press.

While the Tianwen-1 mission isn’t about militarizing Mars, it will have military implications, said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“The technology involved will have military implications because all space technology is dual use,” Cheng said, highlighting tracking and communications abilities.

“It is a science mission. Nobody’s going out there to set up a Martian military base. This isn’t the Expanse or anything like that,” he added, referring to a TV show and series of novels about space colonization. “It’s useful to keep in mind, space technology, more than almost any other technology, is extremely fungible.”

China would be going to Mars right now regardless of U.S. plans, he added. The timing of both missions is based on the fact that Mars and Earth are closer to each other than normal this year and won’t be again for about another two years. The United Arab Emirates also took advantage of the close approach to launch its first Mars mission, an orbiter that took off earlier this month.

But China’s overall space program is part of the great power competition with the United States, as well as with Europe, he said. 

“China views space as reflecting multiple pieces of what they term comprehensive national power. Space touches on economic capability, it touches on military capability, it has impact on diplomacy, on internal political unity. It’s a wonderful advertisement for Chinese levels of science and technology,” he said. “The broader Chinese space program continues apace. And that is absolutely an example of great power competition on the military side, but also on the economic side.”

Tags China Department of Defense Lander Mars Mars rovers Mike Pompeo NASA outer space Rover Space Force
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