China plans to send an unmanned rover to Mars by around 2020, the country’s top space official confirmed Friday, just days after another senior official revealed the country’s plans to do so during an interview with the BBC. Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Xu Dazhe, director of China’s National Space Administration, said that sending a probe to the red planet would be “a giant leap” for China’s space capabilities.
“The probe is expected to orbit the red planet, land and deploy a rover all in one mission, which is quite difficult to achieve,” Xu was quoted as saying. “Only by completing this Mars probe mission can China say it has embarked on the exploration of deep space in the true sense.”
The exact details of the mission, which would aim to study Mars’ soil, atmosphere and environment in addition to looking for traces of water, were not revealed.
Since it sent its first satellite into orbit in 1970, China has been pumping large amounts of cash into its space program. It sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, and in 2011, it launched Tiangong-1 — the first operational component of the Tiangong program, which seeks to put a permanently manned space station into service by 2022.
Additionally, as part of its lunar exploration program, China, in 2013, launched its first lunar probe, the “Jade Rabbit.” Although it successfully landed on the moon on Dec. 14, 2013, it was soon beset with “mechanical control abnormalities” that rendered it immobile.
By 2018, China aims to land its Chang'e-4 probe on the far side of the moon.
“The Mars environment is more complicated and adverse than that of the moon. We're working to overcome the worst scenario — dust storms that will significantly lower the energy output of the solar battery,” Jia Yang, Jade Rabbit’s deputy chief designer, said in November 2014, when China first announced plans to build a Mars rover.
So far, four rovers — Sojourner, Sprit, Opportunity and Curiosity — all sent by NASA, have successfully landed on Mars. Two — Opportunity and Curiosity — are still operational.