Chinese officials released on Tuesday a detailed white paper on the country's space activities for the soon-to-be-concluded year. And while this paper had mainly looked back on the year that was, it had also hinted a potential Mars mission that may take place sometime in 2020.
According to Space.com, the new white paper from the China National Space Administration maps out a five-year plan for the country's space program, on top of a list of the program's accomplishments since 2011. The literature states that China will be pushing forward on its lunar exploration plans, which include the development of the "Changzheng-9" ("Long March-9") heavy-lift carrier rocket, which will be used for manned lunar landing and deep space exploration missions. The country also hopes to make the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon sometime in 2018.
Changzheng-9 is expected to have its maiden launch around 2030, according to China National Space Administration vice administrator Wu Yanhua, who spoke at a press conference to herald the white paper's release.
"There is an old saying in aerospace industry, 'If you want to develop space industry, you need to work on space rockets first; and if you want to develop space rockets, you need to work on its engines first. So now we need to make progress in the heavy-lift carrier rocket's engine first, to create conditions for the whole project."Wu also confirmed that China will be working on Chang'e-5, a lunar probe that will gather samples from the moon's surface for scientific research. He was quoted as saying that work on the probe is "going smoothly" and that the probe is expected to launch by the end of 2017.
Although plans for moon missions took up a good chunk of the five-year roadmap for the future, the mention of China going on a Mars mission had generated the most interest. According to the paper, the country may launch a probe to the Red Planet by 2020 for the purposes of roving and orbiting.
A second mission is expected to follow the potential 2020 trip and will be devoted to gathering samples from the Martian surface for research.
"(The second mission) will conduct further studies and key technological research on the bringing back of samples from Mars, asteroid exploration, exploration of the Jupiter system, and planet fly-by exploration. When conditions allow, related projects will be implemented to conduct research into major scientific questions such as the origin and evolution of the solar system, and search for extraterrestrial life."
A separate report from CNN noted how China is playing an "aggressive game of catch-up" after starting out considerably late in the space race. At a time when the United States and what was then the USSR were in tight competition with each other, China had stayed out of the picture in the 1960s and had only sent a satellite into space in 1970, one year after American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. But thanks to recent fund injections into research and development and training, China's space program has achieved a lot in the 21st century, with five crews sent into space since that year, making it the third country to pull off the feat after the U.S. and Russia.
The white paper also illustrated how China has "peaceful motives" in its space missions, which is contrary to an op-ed from October that suggested China and Russia are working toward "military-focused" initiatives that are designed to "deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt, or destroy America's eyes and ears in space." But the CNN report suggested that despite these peaceful intentions, China and U.S. space agency NASA might not be working closely together on the above programs, including the Chinese Mars mission. Aside from the above op-ed, President-elect Donald Trump has taken to Twitter on repeated occasions to challenge Chinese policies on a variety of issues.
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]