With a $24 billion budget and dozens of active, high-profile missions, it’s no surprise that NASA is the most visible of dozens of government space agencies around the world. But China’s space program is a rapidly developing superpower that, whether due to political tensions or the government’s tight control of information, often doesn’t get its fair share of attention.
Just this week, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) released a series of high-resolution images of Mars taken by its Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which arrived on the Red Planet in February 2021. and has been in orbit ever since. During more than 1,300 orbits, Tianwen-1 photographed the entire planet in exquisite detail, from the icy south pole to the 2,485-mile-long Valles Marineris canyon to the 59,055-foot-high Ascraeus Mons shield volcano. .
While the United States has the reliable Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other spacecraft have imaged the planet over the years, China’s full-surface survey will be invaluable to scientists and colony planners around the world. whole if the country broadcasts the images widely. But it’s just the latest success in a burgeoning space program that has ambitious goals for the next five years — and it might not even be the most impressive.
The fact that Tianwen-1 even made it to Mars is remarkable, as it was China’s first solo interplanetary mission. (China participated in a failed joint mission with Russia, Phobos-Grunt/Yinghuo-1, which launched in 2011 but did not leave Earth orbit.) success rate, according to NASA.
Tianwen-1 also carried with it the Zhurong rover, which touched down on the Martian surface on May 15, 2021, making China the third country to land on Mars, after the former Soviet Union and the United States. (Note: While the Soviet rover landed on the surface, it never operated.) Zhurong, meanwhile, has been exploring the Utopia Planitia Basin for over a year, though he entered into winter hibernation last month.
Closer to home, China has also been successful on the Moon, becoming the first country to attempt a soft-landing of a probe on the dark side of the Moon, which never faces Earth. And it is successful. The Chang’e 4 lander arrived on the lunar surface on January 3, 2019, taking with it the Yutu-2 rover, which is actively exploring the Von Kármán crater.
And even closer to home than the moon, China is currently developing its own space station in low Earth orbit – China is notably banned from the International Space Station due to a 2011 Department of Defense law that prohibits NASA to collaborate with the nation unless specially authorized. . The first module of China’s Tiangong space station, Tianhe, was launched in May 2021, and CNSA suggests the final two modules, Mengtian and Wentian, will be launched by the end of this year. Since then, two crews of taikonauts (China’s version of astronauts) have carried out long-duration missions on the station, while a third is currently on board for a six-month stay.
The government’s lack of transparency likely contributes to the lack of attention paid to China’s space program. Many missions weren’t announced until the last moment, and the riskier ones aren’t usually televised – that way failures can be fairly low-key. Other private spaceflight agencies and companies are much more open in their current and future plans, sharing both successes and failures. (NASA, for example, almost always provides a live broadcast of crucial mission moments, such as launches and landings.)
But with so much success under its belt, the CNSA is becoming more open about its plans. In January 2022, the administration released a white paper titled “China’s Space Program: A 2021 Perspective,” sharing both achievements since 2016 and plans for the next five years. Curiously, the CNSA also acknowledged some of its failures in the white paper; he noted that only 183 of more than 400 launch attempts between 2016 and 2021 were successful.
In the next half of the decade, China plans to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope, which will dock with the Tiangong Space Station; the ZengHe asteroid sample return mission; and several lunar probes. China has also promoted planning for a crewed lunar mission, which could make it the second country to land humans on the moon.
Of course, project timelines in the space industry are frequently delayed, but it looks like China’s space program still has a few busy years ahead of it.