Mars Space Race: China Launching Mars Rover Mission By 2020

Norman Byrd - Author
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Apr. 23 2016, Updated 3:49 p.m. ET

China has announced plans for a Mars mission as soon as 2020, an official with the nation’s space program stated on Friday. China has ambitions to expand their overall space program within the next couple decades that will include missions to the moon, as well as Mars. Friday’s announcement has put emphasis on a 2020 launch schedule that has been labeled “a challenge” for the China National Space Administration (CNSA), but the country is determined to place a probe in Mars orbit and a rover on the surface by 2021.

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Phys.org reported on April 22 that China’s plans for Mars exploration includes an all-inclusive mission (as opposed to the numerous incremental missions already embarked upon or planned by other agencies) to launch and place a probe in Mars orbit within the next five years. Said orbiter would carry a rover vehicle, which would be deployed to the Martian surface to begin exploratory work, much in the same vein as that performed by NASA’s Mars rovers.

According to a 2014 posting by the Planetary Society, China’s long-term goal for Mars includes rover exploration as well as a secondary vehicle capable of launching from Mars’ surface and returning to Earth with a sample payload by 2030. (This differs from the rovers sent by the U.S., which have provided photographic, electronic sensory, and rudimentary geological experiments, the gleaned data then transmitted back to Earth). Reporting on an exposition held in November that year, Chinese media outlets noted that the nation’s State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense announced the development of its Mars exploration mission, detailing the unveiling of a Mars rover.

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National Space Administration director Xu Dazhe told a press conference in Beijing Friday that not only would meeting the 2020 launch schedule be “a challenge,” it would also be “a giant leap” for China in its proven capabilities with regard to space exploration.

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“What we want to achieve is to orbit Mars, land, and deploy the rover in one mission, which will be quite difficult to achieve.”

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His words supported those of Wu Wieren, head designer of China’s lunar missions, who earlier in the week told BBC News much the same message.

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“We will orbit Mars, land and deploy a rover – all in one mission.”

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China’s space program has historically kept mainly to itself, its secretiveness an offshoot of the CSNA’s being part of the nation’s military establishment. But more recently, the space agency has been more outgoing, sharing data sent back from its most recent moon mission and going public with plans to not only explore Mars, but to hopefully launch missions with a partner. Specifically: NASA.

Wu told BBC News the plan going forward.

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“We would like to cooperate with the U.S., especially for space and moon exploration. We would welcome this very much. We have urged the U.S. many times to get rid of restrictions, so scientists from both countries can work together on future exploration.”

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At present, NASA is forbidden by law to collaborate with China with regard to space exploration due to fears of scientific espionage. In 2011, Congress passed spending legislation that included a two sentence clause that, according to Forbes, “prohibits the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from coordinating any joint scientific activity with China.”

China is expected to announce further details considering their planned 2020 Mars exploration project in the next week. Once successful, China’s space agency will join NASA, the Soviet Union’s Lavochkin Research and Production Association, the Indian Space Research Organization, and the European Space Agency in placing orbiters around the Red Planet. Of these, only the Soviet Union (Lavochkin), NASA, and the European Space Agency have landed on Mars’ surface.

NASA is still the only space agency to successfully deploy a rover on the Red Planet’s surface. To date, there have been four successful Mars rover missions.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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