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China, US Face Off In New Space Race: Mars 2020

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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China and the U.S. recently announced plans to send rovers to Mars in 2020, signaling the start of a new space race.

China’s plans to land a solar-powered rover on Mars in July or August of 2020 while NASA intends to launch its own  $2.1 billion dollar nuclear isotope powered Mars 2020 rover the same month.

“The probe, for its part, will carry 13 payloads including a remote sensing camera and a ground penetrating radar which could be used to study the soil, environment, and atmosphere of Mars, as well as the planet’s physical fields, the distribution of water and ice, and its inner structure,” Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, described their rover in a Wednesday article.

Since launching its first manned space mission in 2003, China has sent up an experimental space station, staged a spacewalk, and landed a rover on the Moon. The country has also increased its cooperation in space with Europe and will launch its second space station this coming September.

China’s space program has faced serious problems however, as the country’s 2013 lunar rover had numerous mechanical problems and was ultimately abandoned. China’s first attempt to send a satellite into Mars orbit in 2011 failed when the rocket carrying it blew up before reaching Earth’s orbit.

Meanwhile, NASA hasn’t launched an astronaut into space since 2011 without the help of the Russians and has been forced by the Obama administration to delay its Mars missions until 2030. Attempts to return U.S. astronauts to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) are now in the hands of private companies. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX  is racing Boeing to be the first private company to send humans to the ISS, so that NASA can focus on expanding access to space.

President Obama has twice stymied programs initiated during the Bush administration designed to take humans to Mars by leaking information to the press about them and threatening to veto the projects. Obama has repeatedly tried to slash space exploration funding and redirect it to Earth science programs — which just so happen to include climate modeling programs to measure global warming. Obama increased NASA’s budget for these environmental programs, especially those that study global warming, by 63 percent.

Obama’s delays and funding cuts have allowed China to close the gap with NASA in space. China’s plans to send a rover and a human to Mars are still technologically inferior to NASA however. China’s Mars rover will weigh an estimated 440 pounds, making it much smaller than NASA’s new Mars 2020 rover’s 2,315 pounds. NASA’s previous nuclear isotope powered Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August of 2012, weighed 2,000 pounds.

NASA’s Mars 2020 will conduct experiments explicitly look for signs of life, past and present in a region of Mars where life could have existed.The rover will include a wide array of scientific instruments to test for the presence of life as well as as microphones to listen to the sounds of Mars and potentially even include tiny helicopter-like drones which would use the rover as a base for further exploration. Most notably, Mars 2020 will be equipped with a powerful laser drill which will vaporize rocks and soils to determine their composition.

In addition to their rovers, both countries are already adding a military dimension to the new space race as well, as the U.S. launched a pair of “minesweeping” satellites into orbit Friday.China has an ambitious, military-run, multi-billion-dollar space program which the country’s government sees as symbolizing its rising global stature.

A report published earlier this month by the U.S. National Academies found that the Department of Defense “urgently needs” new policies to defend U.S. satellites, as both Russia and China are developing space weapons capable of knocking out U.S. satellites in any future conflict, giving them a potentially catastrophic edge in war.

The U.S. military relies on numerous satellites to provide precision navigation, communications, weather monitoring, ground surveillance and spying and detection of nuclear missile launches.

However, all of these systems are extremely vulnerable to both Russia and China, both of which have developed capabilities to attack U.S. space assets. The Chinese successfully targeted and destroyed one of their own satellites in orbit in 2007 and likely tested a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.

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