Mail track

China’s Mars mission is on track to lead the world in recovering Martian rocks by 2031, program veteran says

A senior space official has confirmed that China plans to bring rocks home from the surface of Mars by 2031, which could make it the first nation to deliver Mars samples to Earth.

According to Sun Zezhou, chief designer of China’s first mission to Mars Tianwen 1 as well as the Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 lunar missions.

China aims to send two spacecraft – one comprising a lander and an ascent vehicle, and the other an orbiter and a reentry capsule – to the Red Planet in 2028, Sun said Monday at a conference. to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Nanjing University.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends around the world? Get the answers with SCMP knowledgeour new curated content platform with explanations, FAQs, analysis and infographics presented by our award-winning team.

Once the lander lands, it will drill samples and collect them. The rocks will be delivered to Mars orbit and the mission will return home around October 2030, arriving on Earth in July 2031.

Retrieving samples from Mars to study in a lab has long been the dream of planetary scientists around the world, Sun said.

Today, his team is developing the key technologies needed to complete this complex task. For example, compared to Tianwen 1, entry into the atmosphere will be more difficult as the mass and speed of the spacecraft will increase significantly. It could easily burn if not well protected or crash if the parachute is not working properly.

The team has yet to decide whether to use solid or liquid propellant to blast off from Mars to meet a 4.5 kilometers per second (2.8 miles per second) speed increase and an environment of – 60 degrees Celsius (-76 Fahrenheit).

Sun said the team is also debating the precise timing of the launch of the two probes.

“If both are sent during the November-December 2028 launch window, we will land in a dust storm season which makes our job very difficult there,” he said.

“If the combination lander and ascent vehicle were launched a bit earlier, say May 2028, it would take a lot longer to get to Mars but avoid bad weather.”

Chinese rover finds evidence of water on Mars more recently than expected

Typically, the launch window for a space mission is calculated to ensure that it reaches orbit or destination without missing the target. For example, a launch window for travel to Mars opens every 26 months and stays open for about four weeks.

There is a similar launch window when the spacecraft returns to Earth from Mars, further complicating the design of a sample return mission.

China was a latecomer to Mars exploration, Sun said, but now had a role to play on the world stage thanks to a technological foundation built on decades of lunar exploration.

In July 2020, China launched its first Mars Mission, Tianwen 1, comprising an orbiter, a lander and a rover carrying a total of 13 scientific instruments. The landing occurred safely on the Martian plain Utopia Planitia the following May.

At the end of 2021, the Chinese government declared Tianwen 1 a success. Sun said that so far the orbiter has completed a global remote sensing survey of Mars, while the Zhu Rong rover had traveled 1,921 km south of its landing point.

China’s new space reactor ‘will be 100 times more powerful than NASA’s’

Meanwhile, the United States has been working with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop an even more complex mission to bring back samples from Mars, some of which are currently being collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Only a few countries in the world have successfully explored Mars. Besides the United States and China, the former Soviet Union, ESA, India and the United Arab Emirates have sent orbiters to the red planet.

More from South China Morning Post:

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2022.