Direction Mars. After the United Arab Emirates on Monday, China successfully launched a space probe on Thursday from Wenchang base on Hainan Island. Embarked aboard a Long March 5 rocket, the Tianwen-1 space probe (“Questions in the sky” in Mandarin) is now on its way to the red planet. A trip that will last seven months.
Why such a traffic jam? First, the launch conditions are particularly ideal in July. The red planet, the Earth and the Sun will find themselves in the same alignment at the end of the year, allowing the missions to follow the most advantageous trajectory possible. An event that usually only occurs every 26 months.
Summer 2020 promises to be particularly busy for Martian departures: in addition to the Emirati and Chinese launches, the United States will also launch a probe on July 30, with the Mars 2020 mission. ExoMars, the joint mission between the Union European Union and Russia, has been postponed to 2022 following too many delays.
While all space agencies seek to take advantage of this perfect window of opportunity, it is difficult to speak of a “race to Mars”, according to Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, a geographer specializing in space policies. “It’s not the moon race of the 60s anymore. Each country has completely different science projects and goals.”
When China catches up with the United States
The Chinese mission promises to be particularly ambitious. The probe is expected to orbit Mars in February 2021, before a lander and a rover (a small unmanned robot) are sent to the planet’s surface two to three months later. This 200 kg robot will analyze samples and take photos on Martian soil for three months. They will provide a better understanding of the geology, morphology and mineralogy of the red planet.
“This mission is part of the continuity of their space exploration program”, explains Michel Viso, head of exobiology at the National Center for Space Studies (CNES). If China has indeed already carried out a similar mission on the Moon in 2013 – and on its far side in 2019 -, this is the first attempt by Beijing to place both a probe in orbit and to land a lander. on Mars, then deploy a remote-controlled robot.
If successful, China will have done, in a single attempt, almost everything the United States has achieved in five missions since the 1960s. “China is no longer an emerging space power”, clarifies Olivier Sanguy, scientific mediator at the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse. “They can afford to cut corners.”
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The United Arab Emirates, with the “Hope” mission, are embarking on interplanetary conquest. The Al-Amal probe, which took off from Japan on July 20, will circle Mars for a Martian year – which represents 687 Earth days – to study its atmosphere and climate dynamics. Objective: to provide meteorological indications and understand how Mars, long twin of Earth, lost almost all of its atmosphere and water, going from potentially habitable planet to hostile today.
As for the United States, they are seeking to establish their supremacy. With the “Perseverance” mission which will take off from Cape Canaveral (Florida) at the end of July, the fifth rover deployed by NASA will aim to collect samples of Martian soil and to learn more about possible Martian life. “If there is a chance to find a form of life in the solar system, it is there”, recalls Michel Viso. He will also work to establish a base for future astronauts: Washington plans to send a man or a woman to the Red Planet in 2034.
If the scientific projects of the countries are of a different nature, it nevertheless seems difficult to conceal the underlying political and diplomatic issues.
March, new diplomatic issue
The Chinese mission? A prestigious emblem. This is Beijing’s first mission to be carried out completely independently. “The Chinese are showing that they don’t just make soft toys for 1 euro,” jokes Olivier Seguin. “After showing that they know how to use the science of others, they font now science. “
Aerospace is one of the most demanding technological fields. With this mission, the Chinese are showing that they have the technology and the infrastructure necessary to establish themselves as a great space power. “When you have a program of this magnitude, you make your researchers, engineers and universities work to the maximum,” explains Olivier Seguin. A strong symbol capable of slowing down the brain drain to the United States.
For the Emiratis, the challenge is to send a message. “By having a space exploration program, you show that you are now an actor in the knowledge society”, judges Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. The country, which wants to get out of its dependence on oil, wants to establish itself as a real power, by investing massively in advanced technologies, sciences and aerospace.
The probe is expected to start orbiting Mars by February 2021, on the 50th anniversary of the unification of the seven principalities that make up the United Arab Emirates. Everything but a coincidence. “Space is the bearer of positive values that these Gulf countries want to convey, which have a conservative image for Westerners,” says Olivier Seguin.
For the United States, the diplomatic stakes are lower. Leader in the conquest of space, they have the opportunity to outrun China, their main competitor. With a budget of $ 1.2 billion, the US mission has been NASA’s largest in decades. The geopolitical context is no stranger to it: national security law in Hong Kong, the case of the Uighurs, trade sanctions… The trade and technological war between the two countries is raging.
A remote conflict that will last for the next few years: Beijing has already planned to assemble a large space station on the eve of 2022, the first step before sending men to the Moon… then to Mars.