To do so it may turn to a handful of European aerospace companies -- Airbus Group (EADSY) , Rolls Royce (RYCEY) and Thales Group (THLEY) -- that already have a relationship with China.
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.
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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.