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2021 . 06 . 29

China once said it couldn’t put a potato in space. Now it’s eyeing Mars

GUANGZHOU, China — In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which sparked a space race with the U.S.
 

China, however, was nowhere to be seen.
 

While the U.S. and the Soviet Union were battling for superiority in this new domain, Mao Zedong, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), reportedly said: “China cannot even put a potato in space.”
 

Fast forward more than six decades and President Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, is seen congratulating three astronauts who were sent to the country’s own space station earlier this month.
 

Since Mao’s comments, China has launched satellites, sent humans to space and is now planning to build a base on Mars, achievements and ambitions Beijing has highlighted as the centennial of the CCP’s founding approaches.
 

Space is now another battleground between the U.S. and China amid a broader technological rivalry for supremacy, one that could have scientific and military implications on Earth.
 

“President Xi Jinping has declared that China’s ‘Space Dream’ is to overtake all nations and become the leading space power by 2045,” said Christopher Newman, professor of space law and policy at the U.K.’s Northumbria University. “This all feeds into China’s ambition to be the world’s single science and technology superpower.”
 

Why space?

In March, China highlighted space as a “frontier technology” it would focus on and research into the “origin and evolution of the universe.”
 

But there are other implications too.
 

“It is important for China and the US because it can advance technological development” in areas such as “national security and some socioeconomic development,” according to Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, and research fellow Christoph Beischl.
 

While experts doubt it could spiral into war in space, extra-terrestrial activities can support military operations on Earth.
 

Space achievements are also about the optics.
 

Through space exploration to the Moon or to Mars, “China and the U.S. display their technological sophistication to the domestic audience and the world, increasing their domestic and international prestige, domestic legitimacy and international influence,” Mosteshar and Beischl said.
 

China’s space ambitions

China’s space program kicked off in the late 1950s but it was only recently that the world’s second-largest economy was able to tout major successes.
 

In June last year, China completed its own global satellite navigation system called Beidou, a rival to the U.S. government-owned Global Positioning System (GPS). Experts said it will help China’s military systems stay online in the event of a conflict.
 

In December, a Chinese spacecraft returned to Earth carrying rock samples from the moon, a first for the country.
 

Last month, China sent a crewed mission to its self-developed space station which is still being built. It was China’s first time sending humans to space since 2016.

Beijing has now turned its sight on Mars. China hopes to send its first crewed mission to the Red Planet in 2033 after landing a spacecraft there in May.
 

China has been a lot more aggressive in recent years in filing for patents related to space technologies as it sets up for some of these future missions.
 

Between January 2000 and June 2021, Chinese entities filed 6,634 patents related to space travel, including vehicles and equipment, according to data compiled for CNBC by GreyB, a patent research firm. But nearly 90% of those patent requests were submitted in the last five-and-a-half years.
 

Between January 2016 and June 2021, the top three patent requests came from Chinese entities, followed by U.S. planemaker Boeing. It highlights how rapidly China is hoping to develop the technologies required for more advanced space flights.

Patents are seen as one way to help define and control standards for next-generation technologies — a goal for China in many different sectors, including telecommunications to artificial intelligence.

“These patents do not just signify the level of innovation in China related to space, but also a well thought of strategy to protect these innovations to gain economic advantage for its space related tech,” said Vikas Jha, assistant vice president for intellectual property solutions at GreyB.

“In the near future, most of the patents in cosmonautics will be owned by China (unless others follow suit), meaning China can become a gatekeeper for the use of space tech for both private players and governments. This is in line with the Chinese strategy of become a superpower not just on Earth, but also in space.”

U.S.-China space tensions

The U.S. and China are already battling for dominance in areas from semiconductor development to artificial intelligence. Space will be another frontier, even as the U.S. is dominating in that area for now.

“The United States remains ahead overall in all areas of space capability, but China is rapidly closing that lead,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told CNBC.

“The United States has a strong policy for space exploration, a clear direction, and capable allies and partners,” he said. “The challenge for the United States is not so much what China does, but how well and how quickly the United States implements its own plans.”