Geopolitical rivalry in space


In July 2020, the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched three separate missions in the hope of reaching Mars. Over the space of just 11 days in the coming two weeks all three of the missions are scheduled to reach their destination of the Red Planet. The USA and China are hoping to explore the land of Mars using rovers, while the UAE is going to focus on observing the planet from above using an orbiter.

This is an unprecedented moment in the competition in space. The UAE’s Hope probe successfully entered orbit on 9th February, and will now continue to study the planet’s atmosphere by sending high resolution pictures back to Earth, becoming the first of its kind from any Arab nation.

This is an unprecedented moment

China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft joined Hope on 10th February (just one day after the UAE spacecraft reached its destination) and will become the first ever expedition to observe Mars from orbit, deploy a lander, and deploy a rover with one probe.

For the USA, their Perseverance rover, which is expected to land on the 18th of February, will be NASA’s ninth mission to Mars.

The first successful flyby of Mars was in 1965, with NASA’s Mariner 4 sending 21 photos of the Red Planet back to Earth. Preceding this mission, the Soviet Union had made five attempts to reach Mars, all to no avail as most of the spacecrafts were destroyed en route. Just two days after NASA’s successful mission, the Soviet Union managed to pass by Mars, but the technology failed and there was no return of any data. It took the Soviet Union until 1971 to finally land, but the orbiter crashed during landing and was inoperable. Later in the year they launched another mission; the lander worked (for a few seconds) but the orbiter was successful.

Not until 2003 did another country enter the space race. Japan launched their Nozomi spacecraft on 4th July, but it failed to enter orbit in December after having reached Mars.

The European Space Agency was next to attempt to reach Mars with its land-orbiter named Mars Express/Beagle 2, launched on 2nd June 2003, but the lander was lost on arrival on 25th December 25th. However, the orbiter did complete its prime mission in November 2005.

Competition in space has been ongoing

China’s first attempt, the Yinghuo-1 mission, was an orbiter carried by Russia’s Fobos-Grunt mission in 2011. Fobos-Grunt failed, therefore meaning China’s first attempt also failed.

India successfully orbited Mars in 2014 with its Mars Orbiter Mission and managed to image the entire planet. In total, only the USA, the Soviet Union, India and the European Space Agency have successfully completed missions to Mars.

The competition in space has been ongoing since the Space Race of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and the United States fought to become the first nation to achieve firsts in spaceflight capability. In 1957 the Soviet Union was the first nation in the world to complete a successful launch into space with Sputnik-1. The USA was the first country to land humans on the Moon with Apollo 11 on 20th July 1969.

The technological progress is invaluable

The Space Race set the precedent for the competition to achieve firsts in space, as during the Cold War any technological advancement over the other country was seen as a huge advantage.

The technological progress that has come from the Space Race and the research that went into it are invaluable. The intelligence and data these three missions could obtain will be extremely beneficial, and the symbolism of two new countries entering the space race is monumental.

The events of the coming weeks are completely unparalleled to what we’ve seen before, and it will be fascinating to observe the missions and their successes, as well as to observe how it affects the geopolitical tensions of the world today.

Image by Kevin M. Gill via Creative Commons

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