Space: the new frontier of the American-Chinese rivalry | Space News

Mangya, China – In an uninhabited area of ​​the Chinese province of Qinghai, two people come out of a tent in a landscape that looks like a planet in space under a sometimes sepia sky.

Dressed in bulky, worn-out spacesuits, they begin to sway in the barren field. Behind them is a sign that says “Mars Camp,” and at the top of the camp flies a Chinese flag.

Located in China’s far northwest, Qinghai’s terrain is dominated by the deserts and landforms of Yardang – sand-colored rocks and bedrock surfaces shaped by wind erosion – much like Mars.

The only signs that it may not be the Red Planet are all-terrain vehicles carrying dozens of tourists and photographers dutifully taking Martian portraits of visitors.

The Qinghai camp has attracted tens of thousands of tourists looking to live out their space dreams since it opened two years ago and is among at least half a dozen tourists who have settled in the country.

“We have always been interested in Mars and we didn’t think twice when we learned that there was a Mars camp in Qinghai,” said Zou Xin’ang, who drove for seven hours with his family. to get to the camp.

From box office hits Wandering Earth, a Chinese space-themed sci-fi film, to live streams of rocket launches, the Chinese are increasingly fascinated by space.

Behind this growing interest lies the ambition of the Chinese government.

The world’s most populous country only started a manned space program in 1992 – decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States – when the government passed legislation to officially launch manned space missions .

A child holds part of a model rocket at an exhibition on the development of Chinese space exploration at the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]
Visitors walk inside a mock-up of the central module of the Tianhe Space Station during the exhibit. The first space station module entered orbit last month [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

But despite the relatively late start date, progress has been rapid.

The country sent its first taikonaut – a term that derives from the Chinese word taikong (meaning “space” or “cosmos”) – into space in 2003 and placed its first temporary module into orbit in 2011.

In 2019, he landed a rover on the other side of the moon – the first country to do so. At the end of last year, he also brought back the first rock samples from the Moon in over 40 years.

In a more symbolic and meaningful step, the independently designed and assembled base module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS), nicknamed Tianhe (“Heavenly Harmony” in Chinese), was successfully launched into orbit last month. The base module provides accommodation for the astronauts and the central control station, and with a few additional missions over the next two years to install the remaining elements of the station, the CSS is expected to be fully operational by 2022.

China was excluded from the International space station, which is a joint project of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Union, the CSS is therefore an opportunity for the world’s second-largest economy to expand its influence in the sky.

China envisions the CSS as a hub for future science experiments, including a much-anticipated Hubble-class space telescope with a field of view 300 times that of the Hubble telescope, according to state media.

A little further in the galaxy, China is preparing to land its Rover Zhurong on the red planet this month.

If successful – and the landing is notoriously treacherous – China will become just the second country, after the United States, to deploy a rover to Mars. The Soviet Union almost pulled it off, but after designing a soft landing, its lander failed 110 seconds later.

Improved “ soft ” power

Beijing’s space ambitions were laid out in a white paper in 2016.

He wanted to “make China a space power in every way,” he said, effectively challenging the dominance of the United States.

People gathered on the beach last month to witness the launch of the Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the base module of the Tianhe space station. The success of the space program has captured the nation’s imagination. [File: China Daily via Reuters]

In his congratulatory speech after the successful launch of Tianhe, President Xi Jinping also clarified that improving the country’s space program was a “major strategic step that would determine China’s future development.”

China’s gradual but steady increase in space power, though lacking in the intensity of the US-former Soviet Union race during the Cold War, has raised questions about competition with states. -United as relations between the two countries back on Earth deteriorate to the point of deteriorating. lowest level in years.

In the United States, with Taiwan and the South China Sea emerging as potential hot spots, there are concerns that China may take advantage of its space breakthroughs to aid its military development.

“The United States is primarily concerned about China’s military space power,” Lincoln Hines of Cornell University, whose work focuses on Chinese space policy, told Al Jazeera. “This could potentially nullify the US advantage in the context of a conflict.”

Still, how China’s space program will tip the balance of power between the United States and China remains questionable, and experts have warned against exaggerating China’s space capabilities.

China is currently seeking collaborations in space with a number of countries, including Germany and Russia, with which it has signed an agreement for a lunar space station in March.

The Tianhe itself will be smaller than the current ISS, which is expected to be retired in 2024, unless its co-authors decide otherwise.

The lifespan of the station – around 10 years as stated by Chinese chief architect of CSS Zhu Zongpeng – is also significantly less than that of the ISS, and China has also been criticized for allowing the remains of the Long March 5B rocket that took the base module into space. fall back to earth in an uncontrolled descent.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement after returning to school that it was “clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards concerning their space debris ”.

“It is not clear exactly what China could actually gain from this, other than wielding stronger soft power,” Hines said. “However, by investing large funds in the space program, Beijing risks jeopardizing its gains in other areas as well.”

A replica of the Mars lander on display in a Beijing shopping mall in July of last year. China should try to land the mod on the Red Planet this month [File: Wu Hong/EPA]

Nevertheless, the target audience for the Chinese space program may not even be in the United States, but closer to home.

Space successes have further fueled national pride among the nation’s citizens – from thousands of people heading to space camp to those discussing developments in the virtual world.

“We’re going to build a space station on our own – it’s an incredible achievement for us Chinese,” one keen Internet user commented on Weibo shortly after Tianhe launched.

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