In February unmanned spacecraft from China and the U.S. are scheduled to reach Mars, where both will dispatch rovers to the frigid surface, offering dueling images of its barren landscapes. It will probably be a decade or more before any humans travel to the planet, but both countries want to gain the expertise needed to dominate what lies beyond our atmosphere, with China aiming to catch up to—or outdo—the U.S., which has made eight successful Mars landings since 1976. “Mars has moved into the symbolic role of demonstrating the superiority of technology,” says Alice Gorman, an associate professor at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, specializing in space archeology.
Their competition is heating up closer to home, too, as space takes on greater economic and military importance. NASA is working on plans to return astronauts to the moon sometime this decade, and China is preparing an unmanned lunar mission for 2023 in preparation for an eventual trip there by its astronauts. That would follow up a 2019 visit that for the first time sent a probe to the far side of the moon, as well as the Chang’e-5 mission, which returned to Earth in December carrying samples from the moon’s surface, something only the U.S. and the Soviet Union had done before.