BEIJING — China’s top space official confirmed on April 22 that an unmanned probe to Mars will be sent to orbit and land on the Red Planet in 2020.
Xu Dazhe, head of the China National Space Administration, said the central government approved the Mars mission on Jan 11, and 2020 was chosen because it will be a time specifically suitable for a probe to land.
The favorable launch window appears every 26 months, so Chinese scientists are carefully planning the mission to make sure the window won’t be missed, he said.
The probe will conduct scientific research on the Martian soil, environment, atmosphere and water, opening a new chapter in the country’s deep-space exploration program, the official said.
Xu made the remarks at a news conference in Beijing to mark China Space Day, which falls on April 24.
The State Council announced in late March that starting this year, April 24－the day when China launched its first satellite into space in 1970－would be marked as China Space Day.
Pang Zhihao, a researcher on human space activity at the China Academy of Space Technology in Beijing, told China Daily that the country will face many challenges before it lands a probe on Mars.
“The probe will travel for about nine months before it reaches the Martian orbit, because the closest distance between the Earth and Mars is more than 50 million kilometers,” he said.
“We must make sure its power system can sustain nine months of spaceflight.”
Another challenge lies in tracking, monitoring and communicating with the spacecraft, since the probe will operate vary far from Earth.
Pang said Chinese engineers have used the Chang’e 2 lunar probe, which was launched in October 2010 and is still traveling farther into space, to test super-long-distance control and communication technologies.
“The biggest difficulty will be entering the Martian orbit and landing on Mars because of the tough environment on the planet,” he said. “Moreover, no one has succeeded in accomplishing the orbiting of and landing on Mars in a single mission. The European Space Agency has tried several times, but all of its attempts failed.”
Jia Yang, a researcher at the academy who led the development of China’s first lunar rover, the Yutu, previously said that the Chinese Mars rover will have six wheels. It will be larger than the Yutu and better at dealing with obstacles, because Mars is full of large rocks.
Since the 1960s, more than 40 probes have been sent to Mars and only 19 accomplished their missions.
Currently, there are two US NASA rovers on the surface of Mars beaming signals back to Earth－Opportunity of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, and Curiosity of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
In November 2013, the Indian Space Research Organization launched its Mars Orbiter Mission. It was sent into Mars orbit in September 2014, making the Indian organization the fourth space explorer to reach the planet, after the Soviet space program, NASA and the European Space Agency.