Feb 9, 2021 - Science

The new Mars club

Illustration of a gold medal ribbon with Mars in place of a medal

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The newest missions to Mars are about life on Earth as much as they're about science on the Red Planet.

Why it matters: The United Arab Emirates and China, which each have missions arriving at Mars this week, have tied geopolitical and national ambitions to their Martian endeavors.

  • Space exploration has always been political, but these missions are being used to demonstrate the countries' technical know-how and prowess far from Earth's orbit.

What’s happening: The UAE’s Hope probe made it into orbit around Mars this morning, and China’s Tianwen-1 is expected to do the same at the Red Planet on Wednesday.

  • China’s mission is also expected to release a rover down to the surface of the planet in the coming months, making it one of the most ambitious first-time Mars missions for any nation yet.
  • The UAE is now the fifth nation or space agency to operate a spacecraft at Mars.

Between the lines: Both China and the UAE are driven by desires to be regional leaders when it comes to space, furthering national ambition and pride in the process.

  • The UAE began its space program in part as a way to create a technical and young workforce that will also help inspire others in the Middle East to enter science and engineering.
  • And the UAE chose Mars in part because of its difficulty.
  • "If you want to stimulate growth really rapidly, and you want to enable an entire generation to develop their skills and capacity and capability at a rapid manner, you need to take on large risks," Sarah Al Amiri, chair of the UAE Space Agency, told Axios. "You wouldn't get there with something that's more guaranteed."

China, on the other hand, is already a leader in space, with a human exploration program, a future space station and ambitious robotic missions to the Moon.

  • "There is a piece of this that is prestige, but it's not about space — it is about doing real science," the Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng told Axios.

The big picture: These missions are starting to paint a new picture of space ambitions where soft power and influence and a demonstration of technological prowess are far more important than a specific race between nations — as it was between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

  • For its part, China initially took a relatively traditional path to the Red Planet. The nation's first attempt to make it to Mars — in 2011 — was part of a collaborative mission with Russia.
  • That mission didn't succeed, but China continued on with its space program, pushing to prove out technology at the Moon and then make it to Mars with not only an orbiter but a rover as well.
  • "If China is able to successfully land on Mars, its first time out, that's actually a pretty good track record, relative to everybody else's first time efforts," Cheng said. "The Chinese are very big on their firsts being bigger, longer, heavier."

The intrigue: The UAE didn't first send a mission to the Moon or import technology wholesale for its Hope probe.

  • Instead, the country focused on building technical knowledge at home that can then be applied elsewhere on Earth, in the tech sector.
  • In total, 200 of the 450 people who worked on the UAE's Mars mission are Emiratis at the space center, and the nation's private space industry is emerging.

The bottom line: Scientifically successful or not, these ambitious missions are revealing how much more accessible space is to those nations that are willing to go there.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Hope probe is now in orbit around Mars.

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