The gleaming, futuristic space base, starkly situated in a barren landscape of dunes and red soil, may seem like a snapshot of an alien world.

But the facility is actually located in the Gobi desert and is the latest indication of how seriously China is taking the colonisation of Mars.

Mars Base 1 opened yesterday in the northern province of Gansu, with the aim of introducing citizens - beginning with schoolchildren - to what life could be like on the Red Planet.

Beijing is pouring billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of overtaking the United States in the race to begin the first extraterrestrial colony.


The new base has a silver dome and nine modules, including living quarters, a control room, a greenhouse and an airlock.

Built at a cost of 50 million yuan (£5.73 million), the facility will allow visitors to go on treks in the desert, where they will explore caves in the Mars-like landscape.

Yesterday, the first 100 students from a high school visited the arid Gobi plains, dressed in tracksuits that resembled spacesuits.

Although the project is at present an educational facility, the company behind it, C-Space, plans to open it up to tourists next year, when it will add a themed hotel and restaurant.

The authorities are investing 2.5 billion yuan in the hope of expanding the site and attracting two million visitors a year by 2030.

"The base is still on Earth, it's not on Mars, but we have chosen a landform that matches closest to Mars" said Bai Fan, the founder of C-Space.

Last month, a similar Mars "village" opened in Qaidam Basin, in the neighbouring Qinghai province - a searingly hot desert region that is considered to represent the closest Earth can offer to the actual conditions on Mars, about 225 million km away.

However, the C-Space project has faced criticism from scientists.


Jiao Weixin, a professor at the school of Earth and space sciences at Peking University, said that the building and surrounding desert were not representative of the truly hostile conditions on the Red Planet.

"From the very beginning, I've been opposed to this," said Jiao. "Tourism doesn't make much sense... what is the meaning in it?"

China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming only the third country to do so after Russia and the US.

It has put a pair of space stations into orbit and plans to launch a Mars rover by the middle of the next decade.

Earlier this year, China made the first ever soft landing on the far side of the Moon, deploying a rover on the surface and claiming it had "opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration".

Next year, the superpower plans to begin building a manned space station on the lunar surface controlled by robots equipped with artificial intelligence, which will hold the fort until humans arrive.

While Beijing has said its ambitions are purely peaceful, the US has accused its rival of pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations from accessing space-based assets in a crisis, as well as creating a dominant military position in space.

China has already demonstrated its ability to shoot spacecraft out of the sky by testing anti-satellite missiles.

Shortly after becoming leader in 2013, Xi Jinping, the president, said "the space dream" would make the country stronger.