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Could China-U.S. Competition Reach Mars?

Jun 21, 2023
  • Liu Chang

    Assistant Research Fellow, Department for American Studies, CIIS

At a recent symposium in the United States, I heard an American expert talking about China-U.S. space competition. I asked the expert whether it is still possible for the two countries to cooperate in space. He replied that if the 2011 ban imposed by the U.S. Congress is not lifted, official cooperation in space would be out of the question.

While this answer didn’t surprise me, it did leave me more worried. China-U.S. competition on the earth and moon — and in nearby space — already risks getting out of control. It may well extend to Mars, as both countries attempt to explore the Red Planet, and it could bring great negative consequences.

To avoid such a prospect, the two countries should explore possibilities for cooperation. The U.S. Congress in particular should remove the ban as soon as possible, allow space authorities to collaborate and preserve a ray of hope for humanity’s survival.

As shown by SpaceX in the U.S., which is continually sending Starlink satellites into orbit, satellite have become increasingly low-cost and highly efficient. With more countries acquiring space capabilities, low-Earth orbit is becoming increasingly crowded. In the absence of reasonable regulation, a large number of satellites may finally create a Kessler syndrome.

A hypothesis put forward by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, holds that when the number of objects in low-Earth orbit reaches a certain threshold, collisions will be unavoidable. The resulting debris will trigger collisions on a greater scale and ultimately result in space debris completely choking Earth, making it impossible for humanity to launch any more spacecraft into outer space.

As human space exploration is disrupted, sectors such as meteorology, navigation and telecommunication, which are highly dependent on satellites, will suffer heavy blows and even become unsustainable. In fact, there have already been close calls, as Starlink satellites nearly collided with other spacecraft, including one of China’s.

In December 2021, the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations (Vienna) addressed a note to the UN secretary-general noting that the Chinese space station conducted emergency collision avoidance on July 1 and October 21 that year to prevent incidents arising from close-range contact with the Starlink 1095 and Starlink 2305 satellites. SpaceX explained those as technical failures, which was unconvincing.

Even if they were caused by technical malfunction — even there is only a 1 percent failure rate — the more than 40,000 satellites of the Starlink project would produce a great quantity of debris in low-Earth orbit and may cause more close-range incidents like those in 2021. A laissez-faire approach very likely will lead to the Kessler Syndrome, and immeasurable losses.

To protect humanity from such horrible outcomes, there is an imperative need for China-U.S. space cooperation. But the U.S. Congress has always been obstructive. While the Obama administration attempted to carry out collaboration with the Chinese side, all efforts were rendered moot thanks to the Wolf Amendment passed by Congress in 2011.

Proposed by Republican Congressman Frank Wolf and incorporated in appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2011, the clause prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from carrying out any joint research with China and prohibits all NASA facilities from receiving official Chinese visitors. Since then, China-U.S. space cooperation has been throttled completely by the U.S. side, and it has since been impossible for Chinese scholars to attend international symposiums on space held in the U.S. Thus, there has been virtually no communication and exchanges in the realm of space technologies.

In recent years, the U.S. has openly declared that outer space is not a global common domain and organized its Space Force. U.S. behavior in space has increasingly been against the spirit of peaceful use, as established by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and is increasingly taking the strategic competition on Earth into space. According to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, space has become a stage for major power competition, and the biggest threat to the U.S. in space will be China. In the CHIPS and Science Act the Biden administration had forcefully advocated, Congress again increased appropriations to NASA in an attempt to strengthen America’s posture to compete with China in space. 

Of course, spacecraft collisions in low-Earth orbit are only one aspect of China-U.S. space competition. Other issues include conventional satellites for nuclear space sensor systems, direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) experiments and re-entry spacecraft debris. Each is a thorny subject. If there is no basic consensus between China and the U.S., these very likely could trigger new crises in bilateral relations under certain circumstances.

When the Chinese space station is completed, China’s manned space exploration will embark on a new “three-step” march toward a moon landing, lunar research and development and a Mars landing. Meanwhile, despite the failed launch of SpaceX’s Starship, Elon Musk vows to land on Mars by 2050. It is therefore likely that Chinese and American astronauts could meet on Mars. If the two countries were able to reach a consensus on peacefully and cooperatively developing and utilizing Martian resources for the benefits of all human beings, it would be precious good news for the people of both countries and the international community.

Although we are not optimistic about China-U.S. space cooperation, the American expert and I both believe that since there are only eight planets in the solar system, not much room is left for humanity. It would be best if China-U.S. competition could end at Mars. If that’s impossible, let’s hope it happens on Saturn. 

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