China to launch Mars probe in 2020

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China is on track to launch its first Mars probe around 2020, and plans call for retrieving soil and rock samples from the red planet before 2030, said Zhang Rongqiao, the mission's chief designer.

China aims to become the first country to conduct an orbital and surface exploration of Mars in a single mission, he said on Wednesday at an international forum on lunar and deep space exploration in Beijing.

The Chinese Mars probe consists of three parts: orbiter, lander and rover. It will carry 13 scientific instruments - seven in the orbiter and six in the rover, he said.

The orbiter will collect data on Mars' atmosphere, electromagnetic field, temperatures, surface landscape and other key scientific indicators, he said.

The rover, weighing around 200 kilograms, will focus on collecting surface data, as well as testing other equipment to pave the way for future sample retrieval missions between 2025 and 2030.

Overall, China's first Mars mission "is going smoothly and all according to plan", he added.

Russia, India, the US and the European Space Agency have probes orbiting Mars, but only the US has successfully landed a rover and carried out surface missions. Around 2020, NASA, the ESA and the United Arab Emirates will also launch Mars probes.

Before 2020, China will launch an unmanned landing mission to the moon named Chang'e 4, as well as a moon sample retrieval mission named Chang'e 5. In the following years, China will explore asteroids and smaller bodies to understand the solar system's origin and formation, and search for information on possible extraterrestrial life.

China also plans to launch probes to Jupiter in 2036 and Uranus in 2046, Zhang said. However, these planets are so far away from the sun that light is too weak to power solar-powered probes. Chemical propulsion systems face long-term storage issues and an even harsher environment in space, he added.

"Since Mars is close to Earth and shares relatively similar characteristics, it has become the priority target in deep space exploration," Zhang said. "Not only might Mars serve for future robotic or human settlement, studying its evolution can help us answer some of the key questions in cosmology that can have a profound impact on our life."

One example is that NASA has confirmed that liquid water existed on Mars, "so is Mars the past or the future of Earth? Studying how Mars became a mostly barren, arid planet can help with our own environmental protection effort on Earth," Zhang said.

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