China’s Space Silk Road reaches Mars and beyond

China's envisioned cosmic corridor comes into clearer view as competition with the US for galactic supremacy intensifies

China seeks to gain an edge in the space race through its Space Silk Road Initiative. Image: Facebook

Most geopolitical analysis is pretty down to Earth. But don’t forget to look up: China’s influence is rocketing above the heavens.

On July 23, a Long March 5 rocket blasted off from the Wenchen Launch Center on China’s Hainan Island. Equipped with a lander, an orbiter and a rover, the Chinese Tianwen-1 spacecraft has set course for Mars to begin a comprehensive survey of the Red Planet. 

The Mars mission, however, is not solely about discovery. It forms part of a comprehensive strategy designed to propel China to the ranks of “fully developed, rich and powerful” nations by the year 2049.

As President Xi Jinping explained to Taikonauts aboard the Tiangong-1, China’s first prototype space station back in 2013, “the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger.” Xi’s China is no longer “hiding capabilities and keeping a low profile,” it’s “striving for achievement,” he said at the time.   Under Xi’s command, the People’s Republic has launched two prototype space stations (Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2), as well as a cargo ship (Tianzhou) able to refuel other spacecraft.

In 2018, it fired more rockets into the cosmos than any other nation. A year later, China made history when the Chang’e 4 successfully landed the first rover on the dark side of the Moon.

Launch of the Chang’e 4 from China’s Xichang satellite launch center in the western Sichuan province. Photo: Xinhua

Closer to home, the BeiDou 2 navigation system recently launched its 35th satellite, completing its sprawling constellation that promises to provide global coverage as an alternative to America’s GPS and Europe’s Galileo Positioning System. 

If Tianwen-1 successfully reaches Mars, China will join the US and former Soviet Union as the only nations to have achieved such a space feat.

Unlike NASA and other space agencies whose stated goals are to conduct space exploration for the advancement of science, China’s space program is more concerned with economic gains, geostrategic positioning and supporting development goals. 

By 2040, the space industry is forecast to be worth $2.7 trillion, according to a recent report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. China clearly plans to capitalize on this projection. 

While the most significant short- and medium-term opportunities may come from satellite broadband internet access, the future is poised to see space mining emerge as a profitable industry.

A small asteroid roughly 200 meters in length that is rich in platinum could fetch up to $30 billion, one projection estimates. The Moon possesses hundreds of billions of dollars worth of untapped resources including helium-3, titanium, and other rare earth metals. 

Chinese researchers like Lin Mingtao are already working under the National Space Science Center to capture a near-Earth asteroid and bring it back to China to inspect and extract its resources. 

Beijing also has big plans for the Moon. According to state news agency