New images of Mars taken by China show the country’s powerful (but secretive) space program

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With a $24 billion budget and dozens of active, high-profile missions, it’s no surprise that NASA is the most visible of the world’s dozens of government space agencies. But China’s space program is a booming superpower that, whether due to political tensions or the government’s careful control of information, often gets little attention.

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Just this week, China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) released a series of high-resolution images of Mars taken by its Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which arrived at the Red Planet in February 2021 and has been in orbit ever since. Over the course of more than 1,300 orbits, Tianwen-1 photographed the entire planet in great detail, from the icy south pole to the 2,485-mile-long Mariner Valley canyon and the 59,055-foot Ascraeus Mons shield volcano.

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While the US has a reliable Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other spacecraft that have photographed the planet for years, a full-scale study of the Chinese program will be valuable to scientists and colony planners around the world if the country releases the images widely. But this is just the latest success for a thriving space program that has ambitious goals for the next five years, and perhaps not even the most impressive one.

The fact that Tianwen-1 even made it to Mars is remarkable, as it was China’s first solo interplanetary mission. (China participated in the unsuccessful Phobos-Grunt/Yinghuo-1 joint mission with Russia, which launched in 2011 but did not leave Earth orbit.) Overall, Martian missions, from flyby to orbiters and landers, have about 50% success. , according to NASA.

martian canyon

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Canyon Valles Marineris on Mars, photographed by China’s Tianwen-1.

Tianwen-1 also carried the Zhurong rover, which landed on the surface of Mars on May 15, 2021, making China the third country to land on Mars after the former Soviet Union and the United States. (Worth mentioning: although the Soviet rover landed on the surface, it never worked.) On the other hand, Zhurong has been exploring the Utopia Plain basin for more than a year, although it went into hibernation last month.

Closer to home, China has also had success on the Moon, becoming the first country to attempt a soft landing on the dark side of the Moon, which never faces Earth. And it succeeded. The Chang’e-4 lander arrived on the lunar surface on January 3, 2019 with the Yutu-2 rover, which is actively exploring the von Karman crater.

Mars craters

Craters in the Martian region of Arabia Terra, photographed by the Chinese apparatus Tianwen-1.

And even closer to home than the Moon, China is currently developing its own space station in low Earth orbit — China, in particular, is denied access to the International Space Station due to Department of Defense Act 2011 this prohibits NASA from cooperating with the nation without special permission. The first module of China’s Tiangong space station, Tianhe, was launched in May 2021, and CNSA expects the last two modules, Mengtian and Wentian, to be launched by the end of this year. Since then, two crews of taikonauts (the Chinese version of astronauts) have completed long-duration missions on the station, and a third is currently on board for six months.

The lack of attention to China’s space program is likely due to the lack of transparency of the government itself. Many missions are not announced until the last moment, and especially risky missions are usually not shown on television – so you can not talk about failures. Other agencies and private space companies are much more open about their current and future projects, sharing both successes and failures. (NASA, for example, almost always broadcasts live critical moments of a mission, such as launches and landings.)

south pole of mars

The south pole of Mars, photographed by the Chinese Tianwen-1.

But with so much success under its belt, CNSA is getting more outspoken about its plans. In January 2022, the administration released a white paper called “China’s Space Program: A 2021 Perspective”. we share both achievements since 2016 and plans for the next five years. Curiously, the CNSA also acknowledged some of its mistakes in a white paper; he noted that only 183 of more than 400 launch attempts between 2016 and 2021 were successful.

Looking ahead to the next half century, China plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope, which docks with the Tiangong space station; the ZengHe asteroid sample return mission; and several lunar probes. China has also contributed to the planning of a manned lunar mission that could make it the second country to land men on the moon.

Of course, the timing of projects in the space industry is often delayed, but it seems that the Chinese space program has several years of work ahead of it.

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