HELSINKI – China’s Mars test return mission aims to collect samples from the red planet and deliver them to Earth in 2031, or two years before a joint NASA and ESA mission.
Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Tianwen-1 March orbiter and rover mission, presented a new mission profile for China March provretur during a June 20 presentation where he described the plans for a profile with two launches, which were lifted at the end of 2028 and delivered samples to Earth in July 2031.
The complex multi-launch mission will have simpler architecture compared to the joint NASA-ESA project, with a single Mars landing and no rovers trying different locations.
But if successful, it would deliver to Earth the first collected specimens of Mars; a goal widely noted as one of the most important scientific goals for space exploration.
In March, NASA announced plans to delay the next phase of its Mars Sample Return campaign and split a landing mission into two separate spacecraft to reduce the overall risk to the program.
March test return mission from China, presented by Sun Zezhou, the chief designer of the Tianwen-1 mission. Two launches and returns in July 2031. #CNSAhttps://t.co/DCas6uoArq pic.twitter.com/VPMcerxvfm
– Yuqi Qian (@YuqiiQian) June 20, 2022
ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter would be launched in 2027, and the samples would return to Earth in 2033 according to the revised schedule.
China’s mission, called the Tianwen-3, will consist of two combinations: a landing and ascent vehicle and an orbiter and return module. The combinations will launch separately on Long March 5 and Long March 3B rockets, respectively.
Earlier statements about the mission suggested using a single future Long 9 March supertunglyftsraket.
The mission will build on Mars’ entry, descent and landing technologies and techniques demonstrated by Tianwen-1 in May 2021as well as regolith sampling, automated lunar orbit meeting and dockingand high speed atmospheric re-entry success achieved by the 2020 Chang’e-5 lunar test return mission.
Sun presented the mission profile at a technology forum for in-depth space exploration, also part of a seminar series marking the 120th anniversary of Nanjing University.
Landing on Mars would take place around September 2029. Sampling techniques will include surface sampling, drilling and mobile intelligent sampling, possibly using a four-legged robot.
The ascent vehicle will consist of two stages, with either fixed or floating propulsion, and will be required to reach a speed of 4.5 kilometers per second, according to the presentation.
After meeting and docking with the waiting orbiter, the spacecraft will leave Mars’ orbit at the end of October 2030 to return to Earth in July 2031.
Sun added that the Tianwen-1 orbiter will conduct an aero brake test in Mars’ orbit later this year as part of preparations for the test return mission.
The technical complexity and the requirements for autonomy represent some of the major challenges for the assignment.
Another noted aspect will be that the landing would take place around the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, where the mission will probably land. Related difficulties include potential sandstorms and low access to solar energy.
China’s Mars test return mission appears to have the support of relevant space and government agencies.
The country’s ambition to carry out the unprecedented mission has been stated before and was part of the China National Space Administration’s development plans. 2021-2025.
Completing “key technology research on Mars sampling and return” was noted as a goal for the same period in a government space white paper was released in January.
The test return will follow two assignments. Tianwen-1 launched in July 2020 and sent an orbiter and rover to Mars, was the country’s first independent interplanetary mission.
Tianwen-2 will be a terrestrial asteroid sampling mission that will also visit a main belt comet. Current plans point to a launch in 2025.
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