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Opinion

India and Elon Musk show Asia the way in discount race to Mars

US caps record month for Red Planet missions with launch of $2.7bn Perseverance rover

| India
Japan's H2A rocket carrying the UAE's Hope probe takes off on July 20: the Emiratis are basking in their status as the Arab world's space leader.

Andrew North has reported widely from across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and central Asia, and is a regular commentator on Asian affairs.

For the first time, Arabic was the countdown language when a Japanese rocket blasted off on July 20 carrying a probe built by the United Arab Emirates toward Mars. China was close behind with its own Mars rocket loaded with a surface rover and an orbiter. NASA capped off the month with the launch of its most ambitious Mars mission yet.

One reason why it has been such a busy month for Mars missions is that the red planet's orbit has brought it much closer to Earth right now, so everyone is taking advantage of the shorter journey time. The bigger driver behind the rush to Mars is that joining the space race has never been so affordable. No longer an elite superpowers' club, the UAE's Mars mission cost the ultrarich oil state only $200 million, well within the means of many countries.

With six probes already orbiting Mars and sending back data -- variously belonging to Russia, the U.S., the European Space Agency and India -- the scientific merits of so many Mars ventures is questionable. Still, the prestige value for the UAE is incalculable -- both at home and abroad. While the UAE had some help from the U.S., its Hope probe was built by Emirati scientists inside the UAE, with the hope that it will inspire more homegrown technological enterprise. And even though the spacecraft is not due to reach Mars until February 2021, the Emiratis are basking in their newly-won status as the Arab world's space leader. Watch for even more countries to follow their example.

The UAE's Hope probe inside a clean room during ground testing: the country's Mars mission cost only $200 million. (Courtesy of Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre)

Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, has been one of the pioneers in opening up the space club, starting with renting rocket space to launch satellites at cheaper rates than many governments could offer. This May, SpaceX became the first private corporation to send humans into space, costing around $55 million per astronaut, compared to the average $1.7 billion cost of NASA's space shuttle launches. Among governments, it is India that has done most to show you can do space on a budget. Its most notable success was its own Mars mission, launched seven years ago for $73 million, less than half the cost of the UAE project. This month, its Mangalyaan probe was still sending back data and photographs.

Then, too, there were questions as to the project's scientific value, and about the government's spending priorities, given the number of Indians living in poverty. I witnessed the launch from India's coastal space center in November 2013. Its space scientists testily rejected suggestions from Indian reporters that beating archrival China to the red planet was a motive -- saying that the probe would be searching for key gases in the Martian atmosphere that could support human life.

India's Mangalyaan probe mounted on the rocket: there were questions about the government's spending priorities, given the number of Indians living in poverty.   © Corbis/Getty Images

But it wasn't lost on anyone that China's first attempt to reach Mars had failed only the year before. And there was nationwide celebration at what one Indian media outlet called the "symbolic coup" of beating China and Japan to the red planet.

With the recent spike in India-China tensions, this jockeying over space achievement has intensified. "We are all wishing very bad luck to the (sic) China in this expedition," said one Indian-flagged post under a Chinese media announcement of its July 23 Mars launch. Indian online trolls also did their best to disrupt the celebratory mood on CGTN, China's international television network, deluging its launch coverage with vitriol.

Chinese viewers hit back, calling India "the world's No. 1 poverty superpower." Indians had a put-down for that too, with repeated posts of this line: "Even with no toilets and food, India still beat China." The UAE's wealthy rulers also attracted plenty of online abuse for their own Mars mission. If China does succeed in putting its rover down on Mars early next year, it will vault ahead. For the moment, this remains a one-country club of the United States. Landing and exploring the planet is both harder and pricier. The budget for NASA's Perseverance Mars mission is $2.7 billion. China has not revealed the cost of its Martian bid.

But this exclusive club is likely to be forced open too. Musk wants to send "1 million people to Mars" by 2050, along with a plan to create jobs there. Amazon's Jeff Bezos is projecting a series of floating colonies in space.

The United Arab Emirates also says it is looking to build a city on Mars, by 2117. And with the COVID-19 pandemic making the threat of global civilizational meltdown seem more real, it could act as further fuel for a new era of space exploration. The road to Mars could yet become a space highway.

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