A busy summer of space exploration kicked off when two Americans entered orbit after a successful SpaceX launch to the International Space Station on May 30.
But that launch, from Cape Canaveral in Florida, was one of many slated to occur this year in places around the globe, and the launches include planned missions from the space programs of three countries.
The United States, which now uses the private sector to propel men and equipment into orbit, is joined by China and the United Arab Emirates with scheduled, unmanned missions to Mars in 2020.
All missions, according to The Associated Press, will launch exploration equipment toward the red planet this summer. That’s the best window for launches, because Earth and Mars are in an ideal alignment on the same side of the sun.
The rare window is open only every 26 months.
While the UAE space program is working closely with Americans at the University of Colorado Boulder and will launch from a site in Japan, China’s space program is much more secretive.
Although the China National Space Administration seems to share mission objectives with the U.S., goals that include exploring Mars for signs of microscopic life, China won’t be conducting its missions with a spirit of transparency.
The two countries share similar strategic objectives, but America’s largest geopolitical foe will continue to shroud its program in secrecy.
Simply put, the two countries appear to be direct competitors.
The timing of the launches, and the countries involved, elicit memories from a past competition, which saw the U.S. prevail as the world’s preeminent space power, when Americans were alone in setting foot on the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.
Much like during the 20th-century space race between Cold War rivals the United States and Soviet Union, geopolitical foes again are setting their sights on the final frontier.
And there’s little doubt that China has emerged as the primary adversary of the U.S. in recent months and years.
Americans have succeeded on eight occasions with putting equipment on Mars, while China abandoned its previous planned exploration of Mars in 2011 after failing in a joint effort with Russia.
But nine years later, the Chinese space program intends to reboot and launch a Mars mission by mid-August.
The timing is interesting.
“The mission is one of the most ambitious yet for China’s space program, which has advanced rapidly since launching its first crewed mission in 2003,” The AP reported. “Since then, it has sent astronauts to an experimental space station, begun work on a larger, more permanent facility, and landed a probe on the less-explored far side of the moon.”
Amid a global pandemic that began in China and spread to the rest of the world, the Chinese space program still will attempt to compete with already successful U.S. missions on Mars, where two American-made landers are busy on the planet, which is a minimum distance of 34 million miles from Earth.
But despite the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus on global populations and economies, scientists from China, NASA and the UAE have been undeterred in their readiness to explore Mars.
China will attempt to place a rover on the planet, while the UAE will join two European countries and India with putting a craft in orbit around Mars.
With rhetoric heating up between leaders in Washington and Beijing, the respective programs of the two countries share a singular goal of exploring Mars for any signs of ancient microscopic life.
Both missions are being conducted with the purpose of someday sending men to walk on the red planet.
Only China and the U.S. have announced plans to land equipment on Mars, and the nature of those missions seems adversarial in tone.
History, which so often repeats itself, again will see two clear adversaries competing for the upper hand with regard to making progress in space. But this time, that competition will be focused on interplanetary travel, as the 1960s space race saw Americans prevail over the Soviets in putting men on the moon.
The round of space explorations slated to begin between July 30 and Aug. 15 will target Mars, and not lunar exploration, and China has replaced the Soviet Union as the American adversary.
It appears that American astronauts, scientists and private entrepreneurs will attempt to compete with another secretive communist nation and its space program.
The two countries, which arguably are entering another cold war, will compete to see which program will prevail as man’s sights are set on exploring different frontiers.
A second space race, it would appear, has begun. And while the target has changed, the stakes haven’t.
Free American scientists in a joint private/public sector effort will face off against a different “evil empire.”
China’s space probe, as with its American adversary, is expected to reach Mars around February of next year.
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