The Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) has revealed more details of the country’s first mission to Mars, currently planned for launch in 2020. During a press conference held on 23 August, the agency launched a public competition to come up with a name and logo for the mission, and also unveiled the Mars lander and rover concept.
According China’s state-owned media, the first Chinese Mars exploration mission was officially launched on 11 January this year, following an 8-year pre-research. The mission was personally approved by Xi Jiping, the Chinese President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
The programme is aimed to launch a Mars probe, consisting of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, in Q3 2020. The probe will conduct a soft-landing on Mars in 2021, when the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding.
The probe will first enter the Mars orbit, before sending the lander to soft-land on Mars surface and deploy the Mars rover to explore the surrounding area of the landing spot. The orbiter will continue orbiting Mars to survey its surface and also provide data relay service for the lander and rover. The landing spot is expected to be between 5° and 30° north of the Mars Equator.
The mission won’t be an easy ride, given the technical hurdles and notoriously poor success rate in previous attempts to land on Mars. According to Zhang Rongqiao, the Chief Designer of the Mars mission, the long time-delay in communications means that the lander and rover must possess a high degree of autonomous operating capability. In addition, the weaker sunlight due to longer distance to the Sun and the Mars atmosphere poses greater challenge for the lander and rover’s power supply compared with a Lunar landing mission.
The most challenging phase of the entire mission will be the atmospheric re-entry, which requires the lander to de-accelerate from about 26,000 km/h to below 1,500 km/h within several minutes. So far just over half of all attempts to land on Mars have succeeded. The limited launch window and long mission duration mean that there is only one chance to succeed.
Once having successfully landed, the lander and rover will send back data on the red planet’s soil, atmosphere and other features, including any ice or water it may find.
If China is able to pull off this hugely challenging mission, it will become either the 2nd or 3rd nation in the world to have successfully landed on Mars, depending on whether Russia and/or the European Space Agency (ESA) will be able to conduct a successful landing before 2021.
If the orbiting/landing mission is a success, China also plans to follow up with a Mars soil sample return mission in the late 2020s.
The Mars probe will consist of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, launched directly onto Earth-Mars transfer orbit atop a CZ-5 heavy-load launcher rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Hainan Island. The launch window will be set between July and August 2020, and the probe will arrive at Mars about seven months later.
Like previous Mars landing missions, the Chinese Mars lander will also employ hypersonic re-entry to de-accelerate, before deploying parachute(s) to further slow down. This will then be followed by a powered descent to finally soft-land the Mars surface.
If the landing is successful, the Mars rover will then be deployed to explore the surrounding areas of the landing spot. The six-wheeled rover, which has a mass of 200 kg, carries a total of 13 pieces of scientific equipment including remote-sensing cameras and radar to explore the surface and undersoil of the planet. The rover is powered by four solar panels and has a designed life of 3 Martian months (92 Earth days).
The Mars orbiter is designed to carry remote-sensing payloads to survey the surface of Mars from orbit, as well as providing communication relay with Earth for the lander and rover.
Like China’s lunar exploration programme, the Chinese Mars exploration mission is also overseen and managed by SASTIND, an agency under the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). The agency, responsible for China’s civilian space programme, often uses the name of “China National Space Administration” (CNSA) in its exchanges with foreign space agencies.
The primary contractor for the Mars mission is the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC), with all of its three spacecraft R&D subsidiaries involved. The Beijing-based China Academy of Space Technology (CAST, or the 5th Academy) is the primary contractor for the Mars probe system, as well as the designer for the lander and rover. The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST, or the 8th Academy) is responsible for the orbiter and some other sub-systems. The Beijing-based China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) is the primary contractor for the CZ-5 launcher system.