A sophisticated Mars sample return mission is being planned by China

Building on the triumphs of earlier moon and Mars missions, China is planning on a difficult mission to gather Mars rock samples and return them to Earth. The project, which is expected to be called Tianwen-2, might launch as early as 2028 and return samples around 2030. A mission like this has never been tried before. According to a presentation given by Zhang Rongqiao, the Tianwen-1 mission’s main designer, at a deep space event in Shenzhen on October 18, the mission’s profile has shifted from a single launch to two launches inside the same launch window.

Earlier reports about the mission stated that the operation would be carried out with a single prospective Long March 9 super heavy-lift rocket. Instead, the Long March 5 and Long March 3B launch vehicles are expected to be used for the mission. According to Zhang’s presentation, the Long March 3B is going to launch an ascent vehicle and lander in an aeroshell coupled to a propulsion module, while the Long March 5 will launch the orbiter and reentry capsule.

China’s desire to carry out the historic mission has been declared before, and it is incorporated in the China National Space Administration’s development objectives for the years 2021-2025. The mission is said to have recently cleared a milestone evaluation and could send the very first samples of rock that were sampled from Mars to Earth. Such a trip would be extremely beneficial to science, offering information on the geology and composition of Mars, as well as possible evidence of life in the form of fossils or biosignatures.

However, in what could be described as a competition to Mars and back, there is a clear leader. NASA and the European Space Agency are already working together on the Mars sample return mission. The Perseverance rover landed on Mars in the month of February and gathered the first samples in September for possible transport to Earth later.

Launches of the NASA-led rover and a European Space Agency rover to collect samples and deliver them into orbit above Mars, as well as an ESA-led orbiter to bring the samples to Earth, are scheduled for no sooner than 2026, with samples expected to return in 2031.

China’s mission advances on the capabilities that two flagship missions established and showed. China executed its first independent interplanetary trip in July 2020, which included the successful landing on Mars of the solar-powered Zhurong rover. The rover tested key entry, descent, and landing technologies, such as an aeroshell, sensor systems, supersonic parachute, and retropulsion, all of which are required for a smooth landing on Mars.

The Chang’e-5 mission debuted in November 2020 and delivered new lunar samples to Earth just over 3 weeks later. The mission demonstrated the capacity to scope as well as a drill for samples, launch unassisted from the moon, and rendezvous and dock in lunar orbit in an automated manner. A sample return to Mars will need to integrate and even improve on these skills while operating independently hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth.

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