China landing its “Zhurong” rover (named after the mythical Chinese god of fire) on Mars is a “remarkable feat” for the international space community and marks a new chapter in the global quest for space exploration, G Madhavan Nair, the former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told Sputnik on Tuesday.
“It signifies the maturity of Chinese technology and how its space programme has evolved over time, from launching satellites in 2003 to landing a Rover on the Red Planet,” remarked Nair, one of India’s leading space scientists and a Padma Bhushan recipient, the second highest civilian honour in India.
“Different space agencies have tried landing a rover on Mars in the past. Nobody could succeed on the first attempt. Only 25 percent of overall missions to Mars to date have ended in success, be it landing a rover or sending orbiters,” Nair added.
Only NASA has successfully landed a rover on Utopia Planitia, a 3,000-kilometre plain on Mars’ northern hemisphere.
CNSA’s (China’s National Space Administration) successful landing of Zhurong last week makes it only the second nation to successfully touch down on Mars. “Zhurong joins active NASA missions – the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers and Insight Lander – in exploring the surface of the Red Planet,” a statement by NASA said last week.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian counterpart ROSCOSMOS are also planning to send a rover to Mars next year. The ESA has so far made two unsuccessful attempts to land a rover on the planet.
The curiosity of the global space community has been piqued in recent years after remote sensing data has hinted at the possibility of an ice shelf within Utopia Planitia.
Nair points out that China’s space programme is “fast catching up” with that of the US, despite a marked difference in budgets.
“America’s space budget hovers around $20 billion. In comparison, China earmarks somewhere around $5 billion to its space programme. However, I would say it is more about the content of the Chinese space program in recent years,” said Nair.
“China is really becoming a competitor to the US now,” he stated.
In a new report released April 8, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence projects that by 2040, China will be the most significant rival to the United States in space, competing on commercial, civil, and military fronts. John D. Hill, the US Defence Department’s principal director for space policy, said on Monday that the growth of Chinese and Russian counter space capabilities presents the most immediate and serious threats to U.S., allied, and partner space activities.
The ex-ISRO chief recalled that China last year became the first space-faring nation to land its Chang’e 4 rover on the “dark” or “far side” of the Moon. India also tried to make a soft landing on the Moon’s far side in 2019 but failed.
“We (India) missed the mission very narrowly. The Chandrayaan-2 (which carried India’s lunar rover Vikram) was following the trajectory in the lead-up to moments before landing. At the last moment, there was a glitch in software and our hopes were dashed,” explained Nair.
“Our next mission would have been sending a rover to Mars had it not been for the COVID pandemic. The government is already backing ISRO’s efforts to make another attempt at landing a rover on the Moon,” he noted.
The space scientist says that one must also keep in mind the “budgetary constraints” of India when comparing it with other space programmes. “Considering the fact that India’s space budget is around $1 billion (five times less than China’s and 20 times less than the US), we have made remarkable strides in the realm of space exploration.”
Increased Space Cooperation With China Could ‘Benefit’ India
India, which successfully sent an orbiter to Mars as part of its successful Mangalyaan mission in 2014, could benefit from China’s space advances with “practical space cooperation” between the two governments, says Nair.
“Traditionally, space cooperation between China and India has been almost nil because of the political differences. However, I feel that cooperation between space-faring nations could serve common ends,” the Indian scientist remarked.
“It could lead to much faster outcomes,” he added.
“India has space cooperation agreements with nearly 25 nations. Unfortunately, China is not one of them.”
Even the US, which sent a congratulatory message to China following Zhurong’s landing, has dubbed Beijing’s civilian space programme a threat to American national security, as per an intelligence report published in April.