Space: the new frontier of the American-Chinese rivalry | Space News
Mangya, China – In an uninhabited area of the Chinese province of Qinghai, two people come out of a tent in a landscape that looks like a planet in space under a sometimes sepia sky.
Dressed in bulky, worn-out space suits, they begin to sway in the barren field. Behind them is a sign that says “Mars Camp,” and at the top of the camp flies a Chinese flag.
Located in China’s far northwest, Qinghai’s terrain is dominated by the deserts and landforms of Yardang – sand-colored rocks and bedrock surfaces shaped by wind erosion – much like Mars.
The only signs that it may not be the Red Planet are all-terrain vehicles carrying dozens of tourists and photographers dutifully taking Martian portraits of visitors.
The Qinghai camp has attracted tens of thousands of tourists looking to live out their space dreams since it opened two years ago and is among at least half a dozen tourists who have settled in the country.
“We have always been interested in Mars and we didn’t think twice when we learned that there was a Mars camp in Qinghai,” said Zou Xin’ang, who drove for seven hours with his family. to get to the camp.
From box office hits Wandering Earth, a Chinese space-themed sci-fi film, to live streams of rocket launches, the Chinese are increasingly fascinated by space.
Behind this growing interest lies the ambition of the Chinese government.
The world’s most populous country only started a manned space program in 1992 – decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States – when the government passed legislation to officially launch manned space missions .
But despite the relatively late start date, progress has been rapid.
The country sent its first taikonaut – a term that derives from the Chinese word taikong (meaning “space” or “cosmos”) – into space in 2003 and placed its first temporary module into orbit in 2011.
In 2019, it landed a rover on the other side of the Moon – the first country to do so. At the end of last year, he also brought back the first rock samples from the Moon in over 40 years.
In a more symbolic and meaningful step, the independently designed and assembled Chinese Space Station (CSS) Basic Module, dubbed Tianhe (“Heavenly Harmony” in Chinese), was successfully launched into orbit last month. The base module provides accommodation and the central astronaut control post, and with a few additional missions over the next two years to install the remaining elements of the station, the CSS is expected to be fully operational by 2022.
China has been excluded from the International Space Station, which is a joint venture of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Union, so CSS is an opportunity for the world’s second-largest economy. spread its influence in the sky.
China envisions the CSS as a hub for future science experiments, including a much-anticipated Hubble-class space telescope with a field of view 300 times that of the Hubble telescope, according to state media.
A little further in the galaxy, China is preparing to land its Zhurong rover on the Red Planet this month.
If successful – and the landing is notoriously dangerous – China will become only the second country, after the United States, to deploy a rover to Mars. The Soviet Union almost pulled it off, but after designing a soft landing, its lander failed 110 seconds later.
Improved “ soft ” power
Beijing’s space ambitions were laid out in a white paper in 2016.
He wanted to “make China a space power in every way,” he said, effectively challenging the dominance of the United States.
In his congratulatory speech after the successful launch of Tianhe, President Xi Jinping also clarified that improving the country’s space program was a “major strategic step that would determine China’s future development.”
China’s gradual but steady rise in space power, though lacking in the intensity of the race between the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, has raised questions about competition with the United States. United as relations between the two returning countries deteriorate to the lowest level in years.
In the United States, with Taiwan and the South China Sea emerging as potential hot spots, there are concerns that China may take advantage of its space breakthroughs to aid its military development.
“The United States is primarily concerned about China’s military space power,” Lincoln Hines of Cornell University, whose work focuses on Chinese space policy, told Al Jazeera. “This could potentially nullify the US advantage in the context of a conflict.”
Still, how China’s space program will tip the balance of power between the United States and China remains questionable, and experts have warned against exaggerating China’s space capabilities.
China is currently seeking collaborations in space with a number of countries, including Germany and Russia, with which it signed an agreement for a lunar space station in March.
The Tianhe itself will be smaller than the current ISS, which is expected to be retired in 2024, unless its co-authors decide otherwise.
The lifespan of the station – around 10 years as stated by Chinese chief architect of CSS Zhu Zongpeng – is also significantly less than that of the ISS, and China has also been criticized for allowing the remains of the Long March 5B rocket that took the base module into space. fall back to earth in an uncontrolled descent.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement after returning to school that it was “clear that China is not meeting responsible standards regarding its space debris.”
“It is not clear exactly what China could gain in a tangible way, other than wielding stronger soft power,” Hines said. “However, by investing large funds in the space program, Beijing risks jeopardizing its gains in other areas as well.”
Still, the target audience for the Chinese space program may not even be in the United States, but closer to home.
Space successes have further fueled national pride among the nation’s citizens – from thousands of people heading to space camp to those discussing developments in the virtual world.
“We’re going to build a space station on our own – it’s an incredible achievement for us Chinese,” commented one avid Internet user on Weibo shortly after Tianhe launched.