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Official: No Specific Plan for Mars Mission Now

China will intensify studies of Mars, but an exploration of the Red Planet is still years away, space officials and scientists said Sunday in Beijing.


"We have fixed our eyes on deep space... and we are launching a lunar exploration this year, but we don't have a specific plan for a Mars mission right now," said Sun Weigang, director of the Space Department of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.


But research on deep space, including feasibility studies on a Mars mission, will be strengthened in the years ahead, he said.


Sun's comments were made just hours after a US spacecraft carrying robotic explorer Spirit rover landed on Mars yesterday.


Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration, yesterday expressed his congratulations for the successful landing.


"We have been always closely watching Mars exploration activities," he said. "We hope the US mission will be a complete success in the days to come."


Sun said: "China has other important things to do -- including further implementing its manned space program -- before it is ready to kick off a Mars effort."


Technically speaking, China still has a long way to go before it would be ready, he said.


"China may have a carrier rocket to blast off a Mars probe, but the most challenging work is to develop monitoring and control systems that can track and control the actions of a possible Mars probe," said Liu Zhenxing, a researcher with the Center for Space Science and Applied Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


The experience and expertise accumulated in the course of implementing the lunar probe program will help China's exploration of Mars, both Sun and Liu said.


Wu Ji, the center's vice-director, said China has been conducting studies comparing the geospace environments between Mars and Earth since late 1990s.


Such studies have been funded by the state, and will continue, he said.


Liu earlier said China will launch a fly-by prober to Mars in 2020. But the China National Space Administration yesterday ruled out that the country had such a timetable.


Liu, who proposed the famous Double Star Program for geospace research -- which later becoming a Sino-European joint project -- even listed three stages for China's Mars expedition: orbiting, landing and returning from Mars.


The first phase of the project would see China send a Mars orbiter spacecraft to circle the planet.


This part of the mission will also deal with analyzing the space environment of Mars, according to Liu.


The subsequent two phases of the program will involve wheeled robotic explorers, which roll on the planet and collect rocks for research, and setting up an unattended station on Mars, he said.


Yesterday's successful landing of the Spirit rover, designed to look for sign hospitable to life on the planet, created widespread interest by the Chinese people about Mars.


Hours before the lander touched down, the Spirit rover had landed on major Chinese Internet portals.


China's Central Television broadcast the landing process live.


(China Daily January 5, 2004)

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