The space race has been silently intensifying with the geopolitical battle raging on the ground. With the United States having delayed its Mars mission to bring back samples to Earth, China could beat its rival in achieving that milestone.
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China’s first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, was launched in July 2020 and consisted of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover carrying a total of 13 pieces of research equipment.
In May 2021, it safely landed on the Martian plain Utopia Planitia. Tianwen 1 was dubbed a success by the Chinese government in late 2021.
A top space official in China has confirmed that China plans to bring rocks from Mars by 2031, making it the first country ever to get Martian samples to Earth.
Meanwhile, the United States has been collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a more sophisticated mission to return samples from Mars collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover.
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According to Sun Zezhou, the lead designer of Tianwen 1 and the Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 lunar missions, China’s schedule is two years ahead of the planned US-European Mars mission to return samples to Earth.
In March, NASA said that it would postpone the next phase of its Mars Sample Return campaign and split a lander mission into two distinct spacecraft to lower the program’s overall risk. Under the revised plan, the ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter would launch in 2027, and the samples would return to Earth in 2033.
A NASA-led Sample Retrieval Lander and an ESA-led Earth Return Orbiter were scheduled to launch in 2026. According to the plan, the lander would have collected Perseverance’s samples and loaded them into a rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would have launched them into orbit using an ESA-built rover.
The samples were planned to be collected by the orbiter, which would use a NASA-provided collection mechanism, and returned to Earth in 2031.
With the American-European mission running later than initially planned and China’s mission potentially running ahead of its schedule, it could become the first country to bring rocks from Mars back to Earth.
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China had presented a strategy for future human-crewed Mars exploration missions in June 2021, which included three steps: technology preparation, a manned journey to Mars, and a supply fleet between Earth and Mars.
In 2028, China plans to send two spacecraft to Mars, one with a lander and ascent vehicle and the other with an orbiter and re-entry capsule, Sun stated during a speech commemorating Nanjing University’s 120th anniversary.
After touching down, the lander will drill for samples and collect them. The rocks will then be carried into Mars’ orbit, and the mission will return to Earth in July 2031.
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Zezhou’s team is currently working on the leading technologies required to complete the challenging endeavor. Compared to Tianwen 1, atmospheric entry will be more complex because the spacecraft’s mass and velocity will be substantially higher. It could quickly burn or crash if the parachute fails if it isn’t securely insulated.
To achieve a velocity increase of 4.5 kilometers per second (2.8 miles per second) and a -60 degree Celsius (-76 Fahrenheit) environment, the crew still has to decide whether to employ solid or liquid fuel to launch off from Mars. According to Zezhou, the team also discussed the launch time for the two probes.
“If both are sent during the November-December 2028 launch window, we’ll land into a dust storm, making our job very tough over there,” he said.
“If the lander and ascent vehicle combination was launched a little earlier, say May 2028, it would take much longer to arrive at Mars but avoid the bad weather.”
Tianwen-3, China’s mission, will consist of two parts: a lander and ascent vehicle and an orbiter and return module. According to Space News, separate Long March 5 and Long March 3B rockets will launch the two combinations.
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The first landing on Mars will take place in September 2029. Surface sampling, drilling, and mobile intelligent sampling, possibly using a four-legged robot, will be used as sampling techniques. The spacecraft will then leave Mars orbit in late October 2030 after rendezvousing and docking with the waiting orbiter and will return to Earth in July 2031.
China’s Mars sample return mission appears to support the country’s highest space and government officials. The country’s desire to carry out the historic mission has been on its space plan for a while, included in the China National Space Administration’s development objectives for 2021-2025.
With a busy decade ahead for China’s Space Agency, the Martian mission would be another milestone for the country in a realm that the United States has traditionally dominated.
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