With a budget of $24 billion 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 rapidly developing superpower that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves, whether due to political tensions or the government’s careful scrutiny of information.
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 orbiting it ever since. Over the course of more than 1,300 orbits, Tianwen-1 has photographed the entire planet in minute detail, from the frigid South Pole to the 2,885-kilometer Valles Marineris Gorge to the 59,055-foot-tall Ascraeus Mons shield volcano.
While the US has the reliable Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other spacecraft have imaged the planet over the years, China’s program’s full-field survey will be valuable to scientists and colony planners around the world if the country disseminates the images widely. But this is just the latest achievement — and perhaps not even its most impressive — in a thriving space program that has ambitious goals for the next five years.
The fact that Tianwen-1 even made it to Mars is remarkable as it was China’s first single 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.) Overall, Mars missions, from flybys to orbiters to landers, have about a 50% success rate , according to NASA.
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. (Notably, while the Soviet rover landed on the surface, it was never operational.) Zhurong, on the other hand, has been exploring the Utopia Planitia Basin for more than a year, despite being put into hibernation last month.
Closer to home, China has also had success on the moon, becoming the first nation to attempt a soft-landing probe on the moon’s dark side, which never faces Earth. And it succeeded. The Chang’e 4 lander reached the lunar surface on January 3, 2019, carrying with it the Yutu-2 rover, which is actively exploring the Von Kármán crater.
And even closer to home than the moon, China is now developing its own low-Earth orbiting space station — notably under a 2011 Department of Defense law banning NASA from working with the nation, China is barred from the International Space Station unless she was specially authorized . The first module of China’s Tiangong space station, Tianhe, was launched in May 2021, and CNSA proposes launching the last two modules, Mengtian and Wentian, by the end of this year. Since then, two crews of taikonauts (China’s version of astronauts) have served long-term missions on the station, while a third is currently on board for a six-month stay.
Probably the government’s lack of transparency itself contributes to the lack of attention to China’s space program. Many missions are only announced at the last moment, and the particularly risky ones tend not to be televised – so failures can be fairly concealed. Other agencies and private space companies are far more accommodating in their current and future projects, sharing both successes and failures. (NASA, for example, almost always provides a live stream of key mission moments, such as takeoffs and landings.)
But with so much success under its belt, the CNSA is becoming more open about its plans. In January 2022, the government released a white paper titled “China’s Space Program: A Perspective for 2021,” which presented both achievements since 2016 and plans for the next five years. Interestingly, the CNSA also acknowledged some of its mistakes in the white paper; It found that only 183 out of more than 400 launch attempts between 2016 and 2021 were successful.
Looking ahead to 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 advanced planning for a manned lunar mission that could make it the second country to land humans on the moon.
Of course, project schedules in the space industry are often delayed, but it seems that the Chinese space program has some busy years ahead.