Sunday, April 24, 2016

China Aims to Reach Mars in 2021

A model of the Chinese Mars mission. Photo Credit: News.cn

Mars is about to get a little more crowded as another space faring nation revealed its strong ambitions to send a spacecraft there. China has recently announced its bold plan to send a probe to Red Planet in 2021 that will orbit it, land on its surface and deploy a robotic rover – all in first try. The mission is high on China’s priority list as it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling Communist Party.

"The probe is expected to orbit the red planet, land and deploy a rover all in one mission, which is quite difficult to achieve," said Xu Dazhe, director of China's National Space Administration (CNSA).

Addressing the crowd at a press conference on Friday, Apr. 22 in Beijing, he revealed that the mission was approved by central authorities earlier in January. He added that the probe will be send into space in 2020, when a favorable alignment of Earth and Mars occurs, that allows spacecraft to reach the Red Planet in about six to twelve months.

The probe is being developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). It will be launched by a Long March 5 rocket. After its interplanetary journey, the probe will be inserted into Martian orbit to survey the planet from above. It will be injected into a large elliptical orbit allowing conducting flawless observations of the planet's surface. The mission will also deploy a lander with a robotic rover to study Mars from its surface. 

According to CAST spokesperson Wang Zhongyang, the mission will study Martian climate, composition of surface, ionosphere, distribution of water ice, internal structure, topography, and its physical field.

The Mars probe will build upon the experience of successful Chang’e-3 lunar probe. Chang’e-3 landed on the lunar surface in December 2013 becoming the first spacecraft to soft-land on the moon since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976. The mission deployed a rover named ‘Yutu’ or ‘Jade Rabbit’ to study the lunar surface.

"The successful lunar landing laid the foundation for Mars exploration. It's on the moon's shoulder that we set have our mission objectives at such high level," said Sun Zezhou, the chief designer of Chang'e-3 and the future Mars mission.

Zezhou admitted that the greatest challenge for the planned Mars probe is the landing process, given that the Martian weather is hard to predict. He expressed worries about possible dust storms that could put the landing activities in danger.

So far only the Soviet Union, the U.S., Europe and India have successfully sent their missions to Mars. If successful, the Chinese probe will be the first to achieve landing on Mars and deploying a rover there in its maiden mission.

"All in one mission - that's quite a bold attempt," Zezhou concluded.

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