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A Chinese cargo rocket moves from the testing center to the launch pad. Photo by Sun Hao / VCG via Getty

In the past decade, China has steadily poured money into the research and development arm of its national space organization, eclipsing Russia and emerging as the United States' top competitor in the international space race.

The bottom line: The second 50 years of the Space Age will be marked by China's international leadership role in space.

That's how much the space race has changed, Jim Head, professor of planetary geosciences at Brown University, tells Axios. As the United States' space priorities are interrupted — and redirected — by changing political leadership, China's government has the capacity to set long-term goals for development in space and back them with massive amounts of funding.

China's ambitions

China's highest priority is to build a basic infrastructure — systems the U.S. already has in place — to access and use space, according to Gregory Kulacki, a China expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit research organization of scientists and engineers. "The heart of investments [is] going to be in the normal run of the mill things" like navigations, communications and scientific satellites, he says.

But international cooperation has limits. "The U.S. has done everything it can to make sure China is excluded from the International Space Station," Kulacki says. And U.S. "hostility" towards China's space program has stalled technological partnerships with European countries, he says.

China's solution? Make its space program an undeniable force to be reckoned with on the international stage. China is working toward a basic infrastructure, but it's also competing with the U.S.'s scientific and technological advances in space.

  • To the moon: China is planning to go to the far side of the moon in 2018 — a mission that has never been done before — and bring back sample moon rocks. Beyond the implications for scientific research, the mission would enhance China's international profile and show the world how far they've come, Notre Dame engineering professor Clive Neal says.
  • Quantum communications: China is trying to become an international leader in using the behavior of particles of light to send information securely via quantum-enabled satellites in space, Axios' Alison Snyder reports. The feasibility of establishing quantum communications networks remains to be seen, but there hasn't been a commitment to develop the technology at this scale until now.
Make Space Great Again

President Trump signed a policy directive in December 2017 to send Americans back to the moon for the first time since 1972. The move followed a speech by Vice President Mike Pence at the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, revived by the Trump administration in 2017. "America seemed to have lost its edge in space. Those days are over," Pence said.

Reality check: It's debatable that the U.S. has fallen behind in the space race. Although the China National Space Agency and the European Space Agency have made progress, NASA is still at the helm of the majority of space exploration missions.

The U.S.'s ambitions, per Pence, include establishing a base on the moon "to build the foundation to send Americans to Mars and beyond." The U.S. is also prioritizing defense spending in space to combat anti-satellite technologies being developed by Russia and China, which has "an active R&D looking at anti-satellite techniques," Kulacki says.

Russia after Sputnik

Russia has fallen behind since the Cold War era when "space was a key area of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union," per the AP's Vladimir Isachenkov.

"Six decades after Sputnik, a refined version of the rocket that put the first artificial satellite in orbit remains the mainstay of Russia’s space program — a stunning tribute to the country’s technological prowess, but also a sign it has failed to build upon its achievements," Isachenkov writes.

In 2016, Russia launched seven satellites, compared to China's 19. As of October, Russia had launched 116 satellites into space since 2007 and China, 188. The U.S. is still far ahead of both nations with 553 satellites launched in that period.

Go deeper

Go deeper

Most teachers are white. Most students aren't.

Expand chart
Data: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

The nation's 6.6 million teacher workforce has grown more racially and ethnically diverse over the past three decades — but not nearly fast enough to keep pace with a student population that's nearing majority-minority in public schools, two new reports show.

Why it matters: The disparities are especially acute between Hispanic students and teachers, and in schools with 90% or higher non-white student populations.

Updated 12 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 13 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.