China, United States, Emirates … Full throttle in the race for the planet Mars

China launched its first probe on Thursday in the direction of March. A launch took place a few days after the mission from the United Arab Emirates and a week before the US mission in connection with a race to explore the red planet with a diplomatic clue.

China has just started for the red planet. The country successfully launched, on Thursday, July 23, a probe that would travel about seven months to reach Mars’ orbit, in February 2021. Called “Tianwen-1”, the first Chinese independent mission took place a few days after the launch of the first Emirate mission, but especially a week before the US mission “Perseverance” was sent.

While the launch window to Mars lasts for three weeks and falls this year from mid-July to early August, 2020 is marked by the commitment of new powers in the race to explore the planet Mars, during which extrasatic issues emerge in the wake, especially of a diplomatic and technical rivalry between the American and Chinese giants.

In addition to scientific research, China, through “Tianwen-1”, intends to send the signal of its independence and autonomy to the world. An approach that is also reflected in the missions of Emirati, Indian and Japanese, although these are far from claiming to surpass NASA’s leadership.

For China, a “showcase” more than a scientific achievement?

“These missions have great global visibility, they are an exhibition for the Chinese people,” said Francis Rocard, director of the solar systems exploration program at the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes), contacted by France 24. “It is a great pride for the Chinese. to lead this type of mission “. A pride already shown during the Chinese lunar exploration program Chang’e. “There is a whole context to improve the image of China that is enhanced by the success of this type of mission,” the specialist continues.

Thanks to “Tianwen-1”, China hopes to place a probe into orbit, land a lander and then develop a rover (remote-controlled robot) to analyze the surface of Mars. A first independent attempt that brings together almost everything the United States has achieved on several Mars missions since the 1960s. “‘Tianwen-1’ is an orbiter, a large 2-ton lander and a 240 kg rover,” specifies Francis Rocard. “The Chinese are attacking ahead on a technically ambitious mission for a country that has not yet done anything on Mars.” Ambitious, because it is not easy to land on Mars. If the Chinese have already landed on the moon twice successfully, maneuvering is much more complex on the red planet.

According to astrophysicists, the mission to China is somewhat similar to that performed by Opportunity (the second rover in NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission, launched in 2003), and could allow the Chinese to fulfill their dream of surpassing the Americans and Europeans in the discovery of March. However, explains Francis Rocard, “the scientific return is not yet on a par with what is being done in the United States and Europe.” For “Tianwen-1”, China has focused on technology, the instruments are 100% Chinese to assert their autonomy and independence, but the Asian giant is only a step away at the moment. phase of the discovery of planetary missions. “They are learning to make cameras, infrared spectrometers, radars … And little by little they are taking action, but at the moment the Chinese missions have not yet made it possible to make great discoveries.”

This is the case for China, but also for the United Arab Emirates, whose attitude is linked to “a showcase side, to the detriment of science”, analyzes Francis Rocard. In fact, he adds, if the United States can boast of a very advanced and elaborate scientific aspect, those emerging countries, if they take action in this exploration of Mars, are still a long way off. on the same level.

United Arab Emirates, India, Japan … slowly but surely

The United Arab Emirates’ Martian mission – their first, called “Hope” – is more modest because it consisted of sending an orbiter, but nothing to the ground, unlike the Chinese mission. As part of the Emirate Mission, focused mainly on the study of Martian meteorology, the orbit is intended to be launched into orbit at very high altitudes to reach a Mars stationary position so that it can observe for several hours the development of climatic phenomena such as clouds or the appearance of possible dust storms. .

For “Hope”, explains Francis Rocard, the United Arab Emirates continued in an original way by subcontracting its satellite and their instruments (UV and infrared spectrometer) to large American laboratories. A partnership motivated by US leadership in exploring Martian, in part because of their equipment. In fact, “all the machines that landed on Mars and that worked are 100% American,” Francis Rocard specifies.

In the race to observe Mars, not all powers have really had the same success. The European mission “Beagle 2”, 2003, ended in failure, as did the launch of the experimental lander “Schiaparelli”, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), which crashed on the surface of Mars, 2016.

As for the Russians, “they carried out a lot of missions during the years 1970-1980 with rather mediocre success”, develops Francis Rocard, who on the other hand notes Russia’s progress in the exploration of Venus. As for Mars, “they have done nothing since the programs” Phobos 1 “and” 2 “, 1988”, whose first mission failed, and the second “half-worked”.

As for India, the country sent its first Martian orbiter in 2013 as part of the “Mangalyaan” mission, but has since reversed its priorities and decided to send a mid-2020 orbit to Venus. “The Indians have the same strategy as the Chinese but less ambitious, because less mean, but somehow they start to learn a little. In time, they will be part of the countries that will promote knowledge By March.”

Knowledge of Mars that the Japanese can contribute. After the Mars experiment “MUSES-C” [pour Mu Space Engineering Spacecraft C], whose result Francis Rocard describes as “disaster”, Japan specializes in the return of samples of small bodies (asteroids). In 2024, the Japanese will launch a new return mission for Phobos [une lune de Mars, NDLR]. Simpler and cheaper, this mission aims to understand Phobos’ origins, but according to Francis Rocard, “it can also make it possible to take back samples from Mars that might have deposited [sur cette lune]”.

United States and Europe, far ahead

By establishing its hegemony in the Martian exploration, the United States will launch on July 30, 2020, a mission planned for decades by planetary scientists on Mars, and whose prestige Europeans will share. Called “endurance” and aims to return samples to search for possible traces of past lives.

“It is a very complicated mission that will be spread over ten years,” specifies Francis Rocard, who for France 24 describes the various stages expected within the framework of the American mission. “There will be two other elements by 2026: a European orbiter responsible for recycling the container with samples in orbit, and a large American lander with a small rover, whose purpose is to recycle the collected samples on the ground.”

This very complex mission is the result of a collaboration between NASA and ESA where “everyone is a winner”, says astrophysicist. “ESA is very enthusiastic about working on this ambitious mission, and for the United States, it helps ease the bill.”

In addition, ESA should launch the Pasteur rover 2022 as part of its ExoMars program. This 250 kg rover, equipped with European and American instruments and can be drilled up to 2 meters deep, also aims to look for traces of life (organic molecules), but without returning samples.

On Thursday, in Wenchang, on the tropical island of Hainan (southern China), engineers and employees in blue coats applauded after the Chinese probe was launched, and half an hour later the space agency confirmed the success of the launch.

If the mission offers a renewed prestige to Beijing against Washington, China still has a series of challenges to overcome in hopes of being able to compare to the mighty NASA. Starts with the landing of his very first mission, about 56 million kilometers from Earth, and also: to forget the use of “Curiosity” and the amazing pictures sent.