For the past 20 years, the only sign of activity on Mars was a succession of NASA-built rovers slowly rolling across the barren desert landscape. Today, only one of these rovers—Curiosity—is still operational. But in just a few months it will have some new wheeled visitors. One of them is Curiosity’s descendant. It’s called Perseverance, and NASA is sending it on a mission to collect samples of Martian dirt that might have signs of life. It will be the largest and most autonomous robot that has ever landed on the surface of another planet.
The other newcomer will be Tianwen-1, an orbiter-lander-rover combo built by China. The rover is dwarfed by Perseverance, but it still qualifies as one of the most complex machines ever built. If China successfully deploys a rover on Mars, it will become only the second country in history to pull this off. Other than the US, the only nation to even try it was the Soviet Union, and it failed—twice. Mars is an incredibly challenging target, and for China, Tianwen-1 is a message to the rest of the world that it’s no longer merely a participant in space exploration; now it’s a leader.
“China is going to demonstrate that it has a world-class science and technology capability,” says Dean Cheng, a Heritage Foundation expert on China’s space program. But it’s not just about projecting power to the world, he says. It’s also a major point of national pride and a triumph of political will. “It is something that will demonstrate to the Chinese people that the Chinese Communist Party is powerful and able to guide the nation,” Cheng says.
On Thursday, a Chinese Long March 5 rocket is expected to boost Tianwen-1 on a six-month mission to the Red Planet. (The Chinese government has been tight-lipped about exactly when the mission will depart, but the launch window extends until mid-August.) The Tianwen probe is actually three spacecraft rolled up into one: It consists of a rover, a lander, and an orbiter. The rover is stored in the belly of the lander, and about two months after the probe arrives in Mars orbit, the lander will separate from the orbiter and make its way to the surface. The orbiter will spend at least a year keeping tabs on the lander from above and relaying the data it collects back to Earth, while also doing some science of its own.
Chinese scientists haven’t announced the rover’s landing site yet, but a leading candidate is Utopia Planitia, a plain located in the largest impact crater on the planet. (This was also the destination of NASA’s second Mars lander, Viking 2.) Once the rover is deployed, it will spend at least three months studying the Martian environment. The China National Space Administration has released few specifics about the rover or the types of experiments it will be doing, but a paper published in Nature Astronomy this month by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences says the goal of the mission is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”
The rover has an array of solar panels fanning out from its circular body that will be used to power its communication systems and six onboard instruments. In addition to two cameras, the rover will carry a radar for exploring beneath the surface, an instrument for detecting Mars’ weak magnetic field, an instrument to measure the chemistry of Martian soil, and another instrument to monitor Mars’ weather. Although the rover will be limited to a few hundred meters around its landing site, the orbiter will be able to collect more comprehensive data about the planet.
Tianwen-1 is China’s first dedicated mission beyond the moon. (A few years ago, Chinese scientists piggybacked a Mars orbiter on a Russian mission, but the mission failed shortly after launch.) Although it’s mostly matching feats that US spacecraft accomplished decades ago, Tianwen-1 is notable for doing them all at once. US scientists put the first orbiter around Mars in 1971 and the first lander on its surface just five years later. But it took NASA another 20 years to deploy its first Mars rover—and it was a lot smaller than China’s. “If successful, [Tianwen-1] would signify a major technical breakthrough,” the Chinese mission scientists wrote in Nature Astronomy. “No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way.”
It’s a risky move, but it’s in keeping with China’s broader “Go big or go home” approach to space exploration. Last year, China’s Chang’e 4 mission became the first to put a lander on the far side of the moon, and the rover it deployed is still roaming the surface more than a year later. Last month, the China National Space Administration completed the BeiDou navigation system, a national version of the US-controlled GPS network. China’s military built and tested a robotic space plane similar to the US Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences operates the world’s largest radio telescope. China’s space agency pioneered quantum satellite communications, it’s building its own space station—something the US couldn’t muster the political support to do on its own—and, yes, it even has plans for a moon base. There are still the occasional missteps that would be expected of a maturing space program, like the chaotic reentry of the Tiangong-1 space station a few years ago, but whom amongst us hasn’t lost control of a space station at some point?
China’s spacefaring ambitions have a lot in common with NASA’s own plans for the future. But it’s complicated by the fact that there isn’t really a distinction between China’s civilian and military space programs. The China National Space Administration is the equivalent of NASA and employs the scientists that develop the instruments and study the data on missions like Tianwen-1, but it is managed by China’s People’s Liberation Army. “China’s space program is dominated by the military,” says Cheng. “The guys who understand the science are civilians, but they report to military officers.” This also means that all space technologies are considered “dual use.” The same assembly line that made the rocket to send Tianwen-1 to Mars is also cranking out boosters made for war.
But that doesn’t mean the Tianmen-1 mission is solely—or even mostly—a military flex. Cheng says it's first and foremost about science, even if the lessons learned during the mission end up benefiting the military too. He says that the Mars shot will give the Chinese military a “thorough workout” on several processes relevant to national security, like using its deep-space communications network and demonstrating its capacity to precisely track small objects in the vast, empty expanse of deep space.
“It's not like China is going to land missiles on Mars,” Cheng says. “But it is the kind of thing that is going to benefit their military industrial complex.”
But that’s the way it’s always been in China. In the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the country’s “two bombs, one satellite” program with the explicit aim of developing missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads and loft satellites into orbit. But now that China is catching up to the US in the final frontier, the dual nature of these technologies has raised fears among US policymakers and military officials that the world may be on the brink of a new “space race.”
“Space is the new high ground in great-power competition, and the US must secure and maintain its superiority there,” Major Liane Zivitski, a US Air Force intelligence officer, wrote in an op-ed for DefenseNews last month, citing the Tianwen-1 mission as evidence of the country’s increasing launch capabilities. “Beijing’s track record of deviation from international norms leaves the US no choice but to prepare to defend itself.”
Concerns about a militarized space race aren’t new, but it’s not like extraterrestrial diplomacy is on the table. NASA and American space companies were effectively banned from working with China in the mid-1990s after a Congressional investigation accused China of stealing hardware from an American telecommunications satellite, which may have improved China’s missile capabilities. (At that point, satellites containing American parts could still catch a ride on Chinese rockets.) In 2011, this ban became law when then US representative Frank Wolf (R-Virginia)—who had previously called China an “evil empire” comparable to Nazi Germany—added an amendment to a NASA appropriations bill that prohibited the agency’s scientists from collaborating with any Chinese nationals affiliated with the Chinese government. It’s been re-upped every year since.
“He put these two sentences into the NASA appropriations bill largely because he felt that there was religious persecution in China and that democracies shouldn’t cooperate with communist countries,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program and professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. “There are certainly issues with China and technology transfer, but I think it is as much to do about politics as anything else.”
It was a fateful decision. The US blocked China from participating in collaborative projects like the International Space Station, and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) blocked it from flying any payloads that contained American components. These exclusionary policies were meant to protect the military secrets of the US and its allies, but they also forced China’s government to develop the technology and expertise needed to become a major spacefaring power. “After a while they started to recognize that there were benefits to doing this on their own,” says Johnson-Freese. “As long as they were on their own, they controlled their program instead of American politics.”
Tianmen-1 is China’s most ambitious foray into deep space yet, and it shows just how far the country’s space program has come in the past two decades. The nation hasn’t surpassed America’s extraterrestrial achievements just yet. But its Mars shot shows that the technological gulf between the two spacefaring nations is rapidly closing.