China aims to return Mars samples ahead of joint NASA-Europe mission: report


China plans to transport samples from Mars to Earth in 2031, two years before NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) do so, according to media reports.

The target date was announced on a Monday (June 20) presentation (opens in a new tab) by Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Tianwen 1 Mars orbiter and rover mission which arrived at the Red Planet in February 2021, according to SpaceNews (opens in a new tab).

Zezhou’s presentation, reportedly given at a Nanjing University seminar, says China is aiming for a two-launch mission with liftoff in late 2028 and sample return to Earth in July 2031, according to the report.

Related: Incredible panorama shows China’s Chang’e 5 moon landing site (photos)

“The complex, multiple-launch mission will have a simpler architecture compared to the joint NASA-ESA project, with a single landing on Mars and no rovers sampling different sites,” SpaceNews wrote.

NASA recently sought public input on its joint sample return plans, after the agency decided to develop a second Mars lander due to the mass requirements of the mission. The addition of this second lander pushes the arrival of Mars samples to Earth to 2033, from 2031.

The NASA-ESA campaign will carry home samples collected by the US space agency’s Perseverance rover, which has been exploring the 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) Jezero crater since February 2021. The project will use a construction “fetch” rover European. to grab the samples and place them aboard an American-made Martian Ascension Vehicle (MAV). MAV will launch the sample container into Mars orbit, where it will be hooked by a European Earth Return Orbiter.

This zoomed-in section of HiRISE imagery of China's Zhurong rover on Mars and its tracks, captured on March 11, 2022, shows the rover inspecting the rear shell and parachute that helped it land safely in May 2021 .

This image of China’s Zhurong Mars rover and its tracks, captured on March 11, 2022 by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the rover inspecting the back shell and parachute that helped it land safely in May 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona)

China’s effort will be more streamlined, with soil and rock collected in a small area via “surface sampling, drilling and mobile smart sampling, potentially using a four-legged robot,” wrote SpaceNews.

China already has experience delivering samples from the moon. The national Chang’e 5 mission landed on the moon in December 2020 and soon after delivered the first lunar samples to Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 did so in 1976.

And China already has considerable experience on Mars thanks to Tianwen 1, which launched in July 2020 and arrived on the red planet in February 2021. Tianwen 1 consists of an orbiter as well as a lander and a rover, called Zhurong; the latter duo landed in May 2021.

The Tianwen 1 orbiter and Zhurong are still working well. The rover entered a planned hibernation in May this year in an attempt to survive the Red Planet’s bitterly cold winter.

In 2021, NASA officials and members of President Joe Biden’s administration warned that Chinese exploration could pose a threat to US interests.

During a virtual Senate hearing in May 2021, for example, NASA chief Bill Nelson twice showed a printed photo of Zhurong on Mars, saying the Chinese program “adds a new element to the question. whether we want to be serious” about NASA sending humans back. towards the Moon. NASA has a program, Artemis, which aims to put boots on the lunar surface around 2025.

Scientifically, however, China has been striving to increase its visibility in the space community. It released a high-resolution global map of the moon earlier in June and released plans in May for its Tianwen 2 asteroid sample return mission, slated for launch in 2025.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) and on Facebook (opens in a new tab).


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