Illustration of the Mars rover and lander. Credit: Xinhua
Mars next citizen finally has a face, and now it needs a name. This week China released the first images of its new spacecraft, which will embark on a 2020 mission to the red planet, and it’s as elegant as it is plucky.
The country’s space presence has boomed in recent years, and the unveiling isn’t even one of the 20 or so missions planned this year.
The concept art was released by the Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.
The Mars voyage has a few legs: It will first deploy on a massive Long March-5 carrier rocket from China’s Wenchang Launch Center, which is located on a beautiful island at the tip of southern China. After the probe orbits Mars for about seven months, the lander will then disengage from the orbiter and gently plunk down on the planet. It’s designed to last at least three months, according to a Xinhua news agency report.
“The challenges we face are unprecedented,” said Zhang Rongqiao, chief architect of the mission, at a Beijing news conference. Meanwhile, the country has invited the public to name the mission.
Illustration of the Mars probe. Credit: Xinhua
The glimpse at the six-wheeled rover is another tantalizing hint at the scientific muscles we’re waiting for China to flex soon. Currently, the nation is puzzling together 4,500 triangular panels to build the biggest single-dish telescope in the world, named FAST (Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope). Tucked in a natural depression, FAST is a giant ear cocked toward the cosmos, waiting to hear alien life and other faint radio signals.
China’s first ever moon rover Jade Rabbit just retired after nearly 30 months. But China already has a plan on the horizon to land Chang’e-4, its lunar successor, on the dark side of the moon in 2018.
Illustration of the Mars rover. Credit: Xinhua
And a permanent space station named Tiangong 2, or “Heavenly Palace,” is set to replace its prototype Tiangong 1 soon. After that, astronauts will journey to the laboratory aboard the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft. The station ought to be fully operational by 2022.
Currently on its way to Mars is the ExoMars mission, a joint effort between the European Space Agency and Russia’s space program. If that module successfully lands, then China’s could be the third to join the robot space party.