American contractors including Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT) aren't in the running because the U.S. government forbids cooperation with China's military-backed space program for security reasons.
There has been no official announcement of a mission to Mars but the Xinhua news agency reported in September that a top scientist had told a conference in Beijing the country plans to send a rover up to Mars in 2020 to "collect samples and bring them back to Earth" 10 years later.
The official spoke after India's probe reached Mars on Sept. 24. Also that day, NASA, the U.S. space agency that put Earth's first vehicle on Mars in 2003 after decades of attempts, said its two rovers were looking for signs of ancient life amid the dusty craters.
China has run an active space program since 1999. In part it's to stoke national pride but space travel could also give China access to celestial resources, such as the Moon's Helium-3, as terrestrial supplies get used up.
So if China is serious about exploring Mars and beyond, that means China's space agency, military-backed China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., needs to find companies that can sell it parts for the Mars vehicle, a launch system and on-the-ground communications over the next half decade.
China has worked with scientists in Europe, including the European Union's space program. Those tie-ups would give European companies a natural advantage in getting China to Mars, and the top brands have sold civil aviation equipment to China already.
Potential contractor Airbus Group has moved scores of civilian aircraft to China. Another would-be suitor, European peer Rolls Royce, sells aircraft engines to the same country. Thales Group provides radars, satellites and air traffic control.
China, a relative latecomer to space, once relied on Russian technology but now wants to learn from the West.
"Any company in Europe is free to talk to the Chinese and many of them do," says Richard Holdaway, space director with Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom. The lab has been asked to help China reach Mars, extending 40 years of space cooperation.
"They, I'm sure, will be interested and they're probably in some sort of discussion for space programs on a number of issues and Mars may be among them," he says.
Airbus's aerospace portfolio covers launchers, orbital systems and satellites. Thales develops satellites, payloads and space observation systems. Rolls Royce does not list space technology on its Web site but works in aerospace defense.
Representatives with all three companies declined comment on China's ambition to reach Mars.
"I would hazard a guess [Airbus and Rolls Royce] would be of interest," says James Berkeley, managing director with UK-based business advisory Ellice Consulting.
But he said there's also an underlying home bias to stoke Chinese national pride. "My instinct tells me the Chinese want to accomplish success with Chinese 'know-how,' so I would focus on those home-grown entities who have most to gain," he says.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.