China earlier this month made it to to Mars, becoming only the second country to put a rover to the red planet. It’s a breakthrough — scientifically, economically and politically — for a country increasingly focused on technological self-reliance.
Beijing’s first such attempt, an orbiter launched by piggybacking on a Russian spacecraft in 2011, failed. A decade later, it has done a lot more — and achieved it alone.
The propaganda value of a landing on another planet, as the Communist Party prepares to celebrate its centenary, is not lost on Beijing. Reaping the soft power benefits abroad, though, will require more than headlines.
Timely, plentiful shared technical and scientific information from its Mars mission will go a long way toward building credibility — and toward defusing some of the tension around overlapping civilian and military use that have made collaboration in space so fraught.
But openness is important. The lesson from COVID-19 vaccines was clear: Prestige and trust comes with transparency — and so too does scientific cooperation of the sort that China and the rest of the world badly needs.
After a series of major launches in 2020, Mars has been a hive of activity. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope craft, aiming to study weather and climate systems, arrived in Mars orbit in early February, joining others already studying the planet.
Tianwen-1, China’s mission, followed. NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars’ surface in mid-February with the Ingenuity helicopter probe. It’s not all about Elon Musk-style ambitions of colonization, though: Scientists hope the planet most similar to Earth can answer questions about the evolution of our own home.
Talk of a race is misleading, but China, with big ambitions and an annual budget estimated at around $9 billion, the second-largest globally after NASA, is clear on the scientific benefit and economic necessity of space prowess.
It landed Chang’e-4 on the far side of the Moon in 2019 — a first — and saw the first seeds sprout. It’s agreed to team up with Russia for a permanent lunar base and last month, it launched the first module of its planned space station. And now, Mars.
Not everything has been perfect. April’s launch of the module for its future space station had the world fretting after the rocket made an uncontrolled re-entry, eventually splashing into the Indian Ocean. We don’t know exactly how much of the technology is homegrown, even with China’s push to avoid reliance on Western inputs.
Yet Tianwen-1 is already an impressive mission, given the immense technical challenges of landing on Mars, explains Katarina Miljkovic of Curtin University in Australia. That’s because of the existence of an atmosphere and the need to use parachutes to slow the descent, unlike on the Moon — not to mention the fact that landings have to be done autonomously, because of the communications time lag with Earth.
But the question is not so much whether Beijing, which has made huge strides since putting its first man in space in 2003, can succeed. Unquestionably, history points in China’s favor, with its deep pockets, steadfast political commitment and a massive internal market for satellites and more. Already, the International Space Station is aging just as Beijing builds its own version, perhaps leaving China with the only sustained human presence in orbit.
The question is whether that success can be shared and amplified for the common good, or whether China’s inward-looking push for self-reliance, its opacity and Western worries about technological transfer dictate the opposite.
David Flannery at Queensland University of Technology, who has been working with NASA’s Mars 2020 team, says China’s mission reflects the scientific goals of the wider community. He points out information from the Moon mission was shared, so there is an encouraging precedent — but there’s room for more. That’s true even if getting to NASA-levels of disclosure — say, live-streaming launches — will be challenging for Beijing to accept.
China is certainly clear that there are benefits, offering up Moon samples and the ability to place experiments on its space station. It can go a lot further.
There’s room for the West to act, too. The U.S. can provide encouragement by reconsidering tight limits on collaboration. Excluding China hasn’t worked. The rules were intended to counter espionage, but have dented multilateralism, fueled Beijing’s ambitions and not aided Washington’s.
That would give us even more reason to cheer Tianwen-1.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues.
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