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Thu 23 Jan 2020 10:56 AM

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Video: China's 39 million-mile race to Mars to catch up with NASA

China is taking its rivalry with the US to another planet.

The Chinese space agency is preparing a mid-year mission to Mars, marking the most ambitious project on an exploration checklist intended to achieve equal footing with NASA and transform the nation’s technological know-how.

Landing the unmanned probe on the red planet would cap President Xi Jinping’s push to make China a superpower in space. The nation already has rovers on the moon, and it’s making bold plans to operate an orbiting space station, establish a lunar base and explore asteroids by the 2030s.

“It’s about prestige, the demonstration of technological prowess on the world stage,” said Emily Lakdawalla, a solar system specialist at The Planetary Society nonprofit foundation.

Chinese scientists have plenty of company as they look at least 39 million miles away at what’s called Huoxing, or “fire star,” in Mandarin.

A record number of robotic missions by the U.S., Europe, Russia and the United Arab Emirates space agencies is scheduled to launch in July or August, when the two planets are closest.

China’s program passed a major test in December with the successful launch of its Long March-5 rocket, nicknamed the “Fat Five,” to propel craft into deep space. It was the first trial of the rocket, which carried a communications satellite, since an embarrassing failure in 2017, when it malfunctioned within six minutes of liftoff from Hainan island and then crashed.

With the Long March-5 now back in action, China can move ahead with its aggressive 2020 launch schedule, which includes sending another probe to the moon and taking steps toward building a space station expected to be finished by 2022, according to state media. “The return of ‘Fat Five’ is a heartfelt victory for Chinese astronauts,” the state-run People’s Daily said in an editorial.

Countries have tried about 50 times to reach the fourth planet from the sun, and more than half of those missions failed. Only NASA has successfully landed and operated probes and rovers, starting with Viking 1 in 1976.

NASA launches its Mars 2020 rover in July or August, and the mission will be the first to attempt creating oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Although Mars visitations are the preserve of government-backed space agencies for now, Branson’s Virgin Orbit in October formed a consortium with partners from Poland to carry small satellites to Mars.

Musk’s SpaceX is testing a vehicle called Starship that’s designed to carry people to the moon and to Mars.

The European Space Agency and Russian counterpart Roscosmos are collaborating on the ExoMars program, hoping their rover lifts off in late July or early August.

The United Arab Emirates will send an orbiter this summer aboard a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. rocket.

China’s space budget likely is dwarfed by NASA’s, though precise figures are hard to find because the program probably includes secret military research.

Its first shot at Mars flopped in 2012, when the Yinghuo-1 spacecraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The next shot, probably this summer, will deploy an orbiter to circle the planet and a rover to land on it.

“The Chinese mission is the most complicated by far, combining an orbiter, lander and rover together,” said Dylan Taylor, chief executive officer of Voyager Space Holdings, a Denver-based investor in space companies.

China’s still-unnamed probe will study the atmosphere, geology and magnetic properties of Mars – potentially providing clues about the origin of the solar system, Ye Jianpei, chief scientist of space science and deep-space exploration with the Chinese Space Technology Academy, told state media in October.

The government agencies and state-run enterprises overseeing the space program didn’t reply to emails and faxes seeking comment.

China’s goals in the cosmos include returning samples from Mars in 2028 and exploring Jupiter a few years later, according to a strategy published by the State Council in 2016.

Yet the long-term science gains from a Mars mission likely take a back seat to the immediate political symbolism for Xi, who is implementing a blueprint for transforming China into a manufacturing superpower in aerospace and technology by 2025.

To sway public support for interplanetary travel, a Chinese company built a Mars simulation center in the Gobi Desert that hosted a reality-TV show.

(Source: QuickTake by Bloomberg YouTube channel)