Adam Minter – Will China overtake the US on Mars missions? It’s up to NASA

In 2033, a US spacecraft will return to Earth with the second cache of rocks ever collected from the surface of Mars. The first cache? It will have been collected by China two years earlier, in 2031, according to plans released last week by one of China’s top space scientists.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that either mission will succeed. But China’s impressive recent successes operating on and above the Moon and Mars give it a better chance of beating NASA and its partners.

The news may sound the alarm to Americans who have been the first to space for more than half a century. However, this is not a Sputnik moment and there is no need to panic.

A mission to bring back the monsters is an impressive technological achievement. But the future of Mars exploration isn’t returning samples; it is discovering past life on Mars. For now, the US is better positioned to achieve that goal.

In 1993, NASA started the Mars Exploration Program, or MEP, a long-term initiative to investigate the geology, climate, and possibility of past life on Mars while also laying a foundation for human exploration. Over the next three decades, NASA launched orbiters and rovers that revealed ancient river and lake beds, as well as mineral evidence of a wet and warm Martian past. These discoveries increased interest in looking for evidence of past life on Mars and launching additional probes to find it.

Unfortunately, the scientific instruments needed to prove life once existed on Mars are simply too large and complex to transport to Earth’s surface. To make those kinds of history-changing discoveries, bits of Mars need to be returned to Earth. That is a complex undertaking.

For example, an early NASA concept had two rovers landing on Mars, collecting samples, and then launching them into Earth orbit, where a third vehicle would rendezvous with them and send them back to Earth. That mission is said to have launched in 2003 and returned samples in 2008. Instead, it was canceled due to cost and difficulty.

Twenty years ago, there was little competition for the US in space. The Russian program was in decline and China was just starting to launch people into space.

But despite a late start, the Chinese leadership was determined to catch up. It is an ambition inspired by the belief that the country’s economic and military future will be determined in part by its space capabilities.

During the early 2000s, the Chinese announced an ambitious lunar exploration program, a future space station and, for now, a Mars program. In both cases, they have achieved and achieved success, including lunar rovers, a Mars orbiter and rover, and a small but functional space station that could orbit Earth if the US doesn’t replace the aging International Space Station by the end of the decade.

That would be a public relations and technical triumph for the Chinese. But if it doesn’t happen, China will remain eager to find another high-profile way to outperform the US in space.

Until recently, Mars was not an obvious place to do it. In 2012, following a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, NASA began work on new concepts for monster return missions. As before, this required multiple spacecraft, starting with a rover to collect samples from an area of ​​Mars that holds promise as a repository of past life.

Rather than wait for the full mission to be designed and built, in 2021 NASA landed the Mars Perseverance rover near a dried-up Mars delta. The rover contains 43 tubes for soil and rock samples that – scientists hope – will eventually be returned to Earth after being dropped somewhere on the surface of Mars, only to be picked up by another rover later. This retrieval rover will in turn deliver them to a rocket (which must also be landed on Mars) which will fly them to a spacecraft that will take them to Earth.

For now, the only part of this return mission that exists is the Perseverance rover, which is currently searching for promising monsters for eventual return to Earth.

The other parts of the mission, estimated to cost about $5 billion, have yet to be funded or built. They’ve also been delayed: In March, NASA postponed the return to 2033, from 2031, in part to give time to simplify the complicated mission.

That’s the opening of China. The scientists believe they can beat the US back to Earth by leveraging technologies used in China’s recent return of lunar samples and Mars rover and orbiter missions.

As pointed out in a presentation given last week by the chief designer of China’s current Mars rover, it’s an easier mission than NASA’s. Most notably, it does not include rovers that can sample different locations over a wide geographic area. Instead, the mission appears to be designed to land, take samples (possibly using a four-legged robot), and return them to China.

If China can pull it off, that’s a great engineering feat, and the samples will be of great scientific interest. With luck, they may even contain the evidence of life that American scientists hope to discover with their own monsters.

But the American samples, if returned, will be of much greater importance, in part because they will have been carefully chosen from a wide geographic area over a period of years. The chances of either country finding evidence of life remain slim, but the US mission is much more likely to reach it.

For competitive Americans, that’s not much comfort to finish second. But in this case, something slower can at least serve American interests.

After all, the chances are slim that the US or China will launch many additional, costly monster return missions after the first two. Obtaining the best and most diverse array of monsters with the few possibilities available should be a top priority and a source of national pride.

For this to happen, Congress must fully fund NASA’s request for the infrastructure needed to complete the monster return mission by 2033. It should also pressure NASA and its contractors to improve management and bureaucratic flaws that have slowed mission development, as detailed in a 2020 independent review of NASA’s Mars Sample Return program.

For now, the US remains the world’s preeminent space power and explorer. Finishing second in the race for Mars rocks won’t change that status. But it should serve as a reminder that its major geopolitical rivals are improving in their ability to shoot for the stars.

Bloomberg


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