For the first time in history, two countries are simultaneously operating rovers to explore the surface of the red planet. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an American satellite, recently captured an image of the Chinese robot Zhurong on the surface of Mars near its landing platform. Meanwhile, the American rovers Curiosity and Perseverance roamed other areas of the Martian surface. All three machines carry laser apparatuses that can assess the chemistry of rocks with a quick zap of focused light, and Zhurong and Perseverance both feature radar systems capable of searching for subsurface ice.
A number of other countries have also taken steps to get in on the Mars exploration bonanza. In a bid to become the first Arab nation to successfully deploy an interplanetary probe, the United Arab Emirates recently sent its Hope orbiter on a mission to Mars onboard a Japanese H-IIA rocket. Speaking of Japan, the island nation has achieved a number of accomplishments in space itself, including, late last year, the return of the first subsurface asteroid sample. In the United Kingdom, the public is now able to invest in private space firms, and the space industry is one of the country’s fastest growing sectors, worth approximately 14.8 billion pounds per year.
For decades, Russia was America’s chief rival in space technology. In its previous iteration as the Soviet Union, Russia was the first nation to place both an artificial satellite and a man into Earth orbit. Although Russia remains a powerhouse in space exploration by the standards of most countries, its star has fallen somewhat in recent years. Even so, Russia recently stepped up its plans to partner with China in a bid to directly compete with the space missions of the United States and its collaborators.
Among other things, China and Russia are coordinating lunar missions which would attempt to install a permanent research base on the moon by 2030. The countries have also paired up to send a robotic probe to an asteroid in 2024. China’s growing capabilities in space make it a good partner for Russia, which, though experienced in space exploration, no longer has the resources on its own to compete directly with the U.S. in extraplanetary ambitions. With political ties strengthening between Russia and China, and with both countries looking to catch up to the United States and its partners, it seems the world may be on the brink of a next-generation space race.
That might not be a bad thing (so long as efforts in space remain peaceful, and the competition remains relatively healthy). “China is gaining rapidly on the U.S., and the Europeans are also in this space race,” Rocky Kolb, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, recently told Voice of America. “Competition brings out the best in everyone. It pushes people, and there’s a lot to explore in space.”
“We’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to discover,” added geophysical sciences professor Edwin Kite, also at the University of Chicago. “We don’t know which country’s investigation is going to stumble over something that unlocks the next stage of exploration. The more countries doing that exploration, the better, for everyone.”
The budding international space rivalry isn’t without its thorns. Russia just threatened to leave the International Space Station if the U.S. refuses to lift sanctions against space-focused Russian entities. Still, for the most part, even during chilly interludes in the burgeoning new space race, the rivalry remains over discovery and exploration. For now, the Space Force aside, militarization of space does not seem to be the focus for any of the countries pushing new frontiers in space.
There will always be doubters who say that we shouldn’t be wasting money up there when there are still people suffering on Earth. Well, sorry to break the news, but there is always going to be suffering on Earth, and NASA’s budget represents less than 0.5 percent of federal spending — or about one-sixteenth what the federal government spends on interest payments, or about one-thirty-fourth what it spends on defense. And even if you don’t care about being inspired or trying to answer the big questions about the universe and our place in it, going to space is still a pretty good use of funds, at least if you like camera phones, laptops, LED technology, GPS, and a million other things we never would have developed if not for spaceflight.
So, bring it on China and Russia. I think the U.S. and its international partners are ready for a little healthy competition in the space technology arena. And investment in this competition stands to benefit us all.
Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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