China's 'bold breakthroughs' in space go beyond Mars and the moon

ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports on how each Space breakthrough from China has been bolder than other parts of the world

There’s a buzz in the air in Wenchang. Located on Hainan, an island off the southern coast, it is China’s equivalent of Cape Canaveral, where one of the country’s five launch sites has been established.

Excitement is building here ahead of the latest space mission, which is due to blast off on Saturday night.

The Tianzhou-Er spacecraft has been manoeuvred into place and will be launched carrying cargo for the construction of a Chinese Space Station.

They plan to establish the base in low Earth orbit next year and in a couple of weeks the first manned mission involving three astronauts will take off, bound for the Tianhe core module.

The name of the Station when it is complete will be Tiangong, which means Heavenly Palace, and every mission as part of its construction involves vessels which include the word Tian 天, heaven.

Asia Correspondent Debi Edward takes you on a whistlestop tour of the new Mars on Earth:

In the 1950s when the country first began developing satellite technology and in the 1960s its first space institute was established, all of the names used were taken from the country’s revolutionary history.

When Deng Xiaoping, came to power at the end of the 1970s after the death of Mao Zedong, he changed that policy to introduce mythical-religious names.

For example, the Long March carrier rockets were renamed with Divine in the title instead.

From the Moon to Mars, in the past few years the country has accelerated its space agenda. It has been investing heavily in the space industry at a time when other countries are cutting funding and focusing their priorities elsewhere.

This week Chinese engineers have been analysing pictures as they come in from the Zhurong rover on Mars.

China becoming only the second country after the United States to successfully land a vehicle on the red planet.

It entered the space race late, but it has matched, and in some areas surpassed the milestones reached by the Americans.

Here’s a list of the country’s achievements and aims so far:

2003 – became 3rd country to launch a human into space.

2013 – successfully landed Chang’e 3 Moon lander and Yutu rover on the Moon, becoming the 3rd country to achieve such a feat.

2018 – launched more vessels into space than any other nation.

2019 – first nation to land on the far side of the Moon.

2020 – brought moon rocks back to Earth.

2021 – landed the Zhurong rover on Mars, only 2nd nation after the United States to do so.

2022 – aims to complete a Chinese Space Station in low Earth orbit

2026 – together with Russia aims to build a lunar research base.

There seems to be a particular focus on Mars, the planet which it is thought could sustain human life.

In Gansu province, on the edge of the Gobi Desert we visited a Mars they have created on Earth.

The land in this part of Northern China naturally looks like the red planet and so it is here that a simulation space base has been built.

It is used for talks and tours, building knowledge and support for an ambitious space agenda.

We were given a tour of the place which is expected to become very popular following the success of the Zhurong rover mission.

The Vice President of the company told me she also hopes these missions can help encourage international interest in China’s space programme, and the cultural significance it has.

So far names such as ‘’Curiosity’’ and ‘’Perseverance’’ from NASA missions are associated with success in space but now there are names like Zhurong (Fire God) and Tiangong signifying that China has a presence there too.

The Chinese government has invited international cooperation and the sharing of scientific data but still a lack of transparency has led to questions about China’s extra-terrestrial intentions.

There is little delineation between its civil and military space applications and launches like that we are expecting tomorrow are often reported only after they have successfully taken place, and not heralded beforehand like we see in the US and Europe.

That’s partly due to the government not wanting to broadcast any failures but also the inherent opacity with which the Chinese system works.

The British National Space Centre, NASA and Richard Branson are among those to have congratulated China on its recent success on Mars.

But the NSC said working together and building trust was key priority when it comes to China. Nobody wants space to become another frontier for friction between the East and West.

The lack of information sharing was illustrated recently when China had the world fretting about an out of control rocket, the fragments eventually fell into the Indian Ocean.

Each breakthrough from China has been bolder, and this is a space programme with boundless funding and political will.

The country has already cemented its place as an economic and military superpower, but there is nothing quite like the symbolism, prestige and patriotic sentiment achieved from success in space.

When it comes to their work, Chinese engineers are encouraged to take giant leaps, not small steps.