The Race to the Red Planet

By Lyle Horne

A permanent colony on Mars might seem like pure science fiction, but for many astrophysicists and engineers the prospect is closer than you might think. This year will mark an important milestone in the story of Mars exploration, with three separate probes scheduled to arrive at the red planet. Spacecrafts from the US, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will all arrive in February and begin their respective tasks.

Missions can only be sent during specific launch periods which occur roughly every two years, hence why all missions tend to set off and arrive around the same timeUsing a wide orbit that crosses the path of Mars known as a Hohmann transfer orbit, a spacecraft can make the journey in just six months using minimal fuel. The most recent launch period was July 2020, and the three craft launched during that timeframe are currently on their final approach. 

The first contender is an old hand when it comes to sending robots into space. NASA already has 21 successful Mars exploration missions under its belt, including nine landings. Their most recent InSight lander included drilling equipment currently being used to investigate the planet’s geology, including the makeup of its core and the nature of any seismic activity. The current mission titled Mars 2020 includes a rover dubbed Perseverance hat hosts a plethora of scientific instruments designed to gather more data on climate and atmosphere, information vital to the success of any future manned mission. The probe will also deploy a small helicopter drone call Ingenuity. Its sole purpose is to demonstrate the feasibility of powered flight within the Martian atmosphere. It is clear that the USA is successfully laying the groundwork for future manned missions to Mars, proving themselves to be the main contenders in the modern age space race. However, the country’s new rival, China, seeks to catch up.

China’s Tianwen-1 mission will be its second attempt at reaching Mars. Its first, Yinghuo-1, launched in 2011 but was left stranded after a thruster malfunction and never left earth’s orbit. Nevertheless, they have seen great success when it comes to lunar missions with several successful moon landings. Tianwen, which roughly translates to ‘heavenly questions’, follows a similar format to previous American missions. The main difference is that this single mission is armed with an arsenal of scientific instruments that it will gather the same amount of information as all previous US mission, effectively leapfrogging to catchup with NASA. Clearly, China is positioning itself as a competitor to the US and without doubt the two are first and second in terms of space exploration technology. However, they are not the only countries involved. Smaller nations such as the UAE are increasingly breaking into this new and exciting arena.  

The UAE’s Hope mission will be its first interplanetary project and an awe-inspiring feat considering the nation’s size. Unlike the other two, it will not attempt to land on the surface but will instead orbit it and gather data on the Martian atmosphere to better understand the climatic conditions that could allow liquid water to exist. If successful, the UAE will become the first Arab country to send a probe to Mars, positioning it as the region’s preeminent spacefaring nation. By levelling the playing field between traditional space superpowers and a newcomer, the UAE has demonstrated that space exploration is not exclusive to giants such as China and the USA.

The solar system is starting to get crowded. But what does this all mean for the future of space exploration and the politics surrounding it? Former US vice president Mike Pence described a new space race akin to the one between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War. Such analogous claims make good soundbites but let us not be mistaken. Modern-day space politics are quite different from those of the Cold War. In the 1950s and 60s two superpowers, the US and USSR, had a duopoly on spaceflight and only had to contend with each other. Today there are no fewer than ten countries that possess orbital launch capability and as the UAE has demonstrated, the list continues to grow. Besides sovereign states, international organisations such as the European Space Agency are also in on the game. The recent increase in interplanetary traffic has been party due to private aerospace firms Boeing and SpaceX. By contracting out the routine work of travelling to and from low earth orbit, national space agencies can free up resources for the more ambitious missions. But even these private companies have loftier goals. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk commits to establishing a permeant human colony on Mars within the next few decades.

On the whole, space has become globalised and is no longer just the domain of two or three superpowers. Of course, we will continue to see competition, particularly between China and the US, but there is now far more room for cooperation than 60 years ago. An eclectic mix of superpowers, smaller sates, international organisations and profit-seeking companies with different goals and intentions will make for more of a space free-for-all than a race.           

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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