During China’s first ‘Space Day’ last Friday, the country’s National Space Administration (CNSA) announced its plans to launch a Mars mission probe in 2020, slating the probe’s ETA on the red planet for 2021, the 100-year anniversary of the Communist Party of China.
“We are working on a tight engineering timeline, hoping to launch our Mars probe in the window of 2020,” says Dazhe Xu, the director of the China National Space Administration. “This is a huge challenge, because at the moment, countries that have successfully launched a probe to Mars include the U.S and Russia.”
China’s space program has made rapid progress since they launched their first man-made satellite forty six years ago. Like their Western counterparts, China’s early interests in space were partly motivated by nationalism, where successful space missions asserted country’s technological and scientific prowess.
Nuclear warfare has also played a part, as certain types of ballistics missiles, such as those traveling across continents, need to travel through outer space in order to reach their target. In 2003, China’s space program made a major milestone when they sent their first Chinese astronaut into space, Liwei Yang.
The upcoming mission to Mars could be China’s next major space achievement.
“Such a big plan to achieve orbiting, landing and rover deploying in one mission will make a legend,” says Rongqiao Zhang, the chief designer of the Mars exploration mission. “Only by completing this Mars probe mission can China say it has embarked on the exploration of deep space in the true sense.”
A successful launch on Mars won’t be easy, acknowledges Mr. Zhang, as the success rate of Mars missions worldwide is about fifty-fifty. The probe will have to travel 483 million kilometers through space before reaching Mars, a long voyage that can fail for a number of reasons, from small trajectory errors to solar flares. Upon entering Mars’ atmosphere, the probe will also have to survive its descent onto Mars’ rough terrain and environment.
According to Mr. Zhang, the Mars mission’s launch date is meant to coincide with the favorable alignment of Earth and Mars, which is predicted to occur in 2020. China’s space program also plans to launch their own space station, the “Tiangong Space station”, that same year. Unlike other countries, such as Russia, Japan, Canada, and the U.S, China is barred from the International Space Station (ISS), due to a law passed by the U.S Congress in 2011 over security concerns.