China wants to launch to Mars next year — part of an ambitious plan to bring the first Martian soil samples back to Earth
- China recently landed the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon and plans to launch a lunar sample-return mission at the end of the year.
- The China National Space Administration is also working on a robotic Mars mission that is scheduled to launch in mid-2020 and arrive in early 2021.
- If successful, that mission could enable future Mars missions to bring pristine samples of the red planet's soil and rocks back to Earth by 2030.
At the end of 2019, the China National Space Administration intends to launch a follow-up Chang'e 5 mission to scoop up the nation's first samples of lunar soil and return them to Earth. It's also planning follow-up moon missions to retrieve more samples, scout for water, and examine possible locations for a lunar base for humans, according to Chinese state media.
But the country is already looking past the moon, toward Mars.
"China's first Mars exploration mission will be implemented around 2020," Wu Yanhua, the agency's deputy director, said during a briefing on Monday.
That interplanetary mission is called the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover, or HX-1.
A January 2018 roadmap assembled by NASA and other members of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group describes the HX-1 mission as an "orbit, landing, and roving mission," which would probe Mars' "topographical and geological features, physical fields and internal structure, atmosphere, ionosphere, climate and environment."
The mission plans call for sending a lander, rover, and satellite to Mars, with the lander and rover traveling to the red planet aboard the orbiter. Once the satellite arrives at Mars and enters orbit, a landing capsule would depart from the orbiter. Then it would scream through the planet's atmosphere, deploy a supersonic parachute, and rocket the lander-rover spacecraft to the Martian surface.
The rover would then roll off the top of the lander, a process similar to Chang'e 4 and Chinese lunar-landing missions before it. The solar-powered, six-wheeled vehicle would be equipped with ground-penetrating radar to study Mars' internal structure and look for pockets of water ice, according to state media.
China's space agency describes its 2020 Mars mission as a key part of future efforts to scoop up and launch Martian rocks and soil back to Earth - in part to determine if and when life was present on the red planet. Chinese scientists hope to get their hands on what may be the first-ever pristine samples of Martian soil by 2030, according to Popular Mechanics.
Some researchers believe that the sites of ancient oasis-like pools on Mars are the best places to dig in search of fossilized remains of microbial Martian life, if it exists.
Getting to and landing on Mars is ridiculously hard
HX-1 is scheduled to launch in July or August of next year. At that time, the distance between Earth and Mars - and the energy required to reach the red planet - will be near its minimum.
This launch window is roughly the same as that of NASA's Mars 2020 rover, which is a car-size, nuclear-powered robot that will set up the US for a Martian soil-sample return. NASA is the most recent entity to successfully reach Mars with its InSight lander; that spacecraft is designed to listen for Mars quakes and deploy a "mole" probe to investigate the planet's internal structure.
HX-1 wouldn't mark China's first attempt to reach Mars.
It previously partnered with Russia to launch a Mars-orbiting satellite called Yinghuo-1. The spacecraft shared space on a Russian mission (called Fobos-Grunt) headed toward the red planet. Although Russia's rocket successfully launched the payload into low-Earth orbit, its engines failed to propel the joint Russian-Chinese mission toward Mars.
If China can successfully pull off the landing of HX-1, it would be only the third nation ever to touch down on the Martian surface.
But experts say Mars is one of the most difficult planets to land on, since it has an atmosphere that's thick enough to burn up a spacecraft, yet is too thin to completely slow down a mission during reentry (as can happen on Earth). In fact, roughly half of the missions that attempt to reach Mars don't make it.
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