How far Chinese scientists will advance in deep space is not immediately known. But one thing is certain: they plan to conduct a Mars exploration in addition to the ongoing lunar mission.
"In the coming five years, China will, on the basis of its moon probes, plan deep space exploration, with a focus on lunar and Martian exploration," Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration, said yesterday.
Sun's remarks, made at the 36th Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Scientific Assembly in Beijing, were apparently the first indications from a Chinese official that the nation's space program would include Martian probes.
Sun did not elaborate on that part of the mission plan, however.
Long Lehao, a senior space scientist with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said yesterday that Chinese rockets were capable of sending a satellite into orbit around any planet, including Mars.
"If the government makes up its mind to start the mission to Mars now, I think we could send an orbiter to Mars in three to five years," Long, also director of the Science and Technology Committee of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, told China Daily.
China's Long March rocket is capable of catapulting a 2.8-ton probe into orbit around Mars, Long said.
By comparison, Chang'e 1, a probe that weighs 2.3 tons, will be launched next year to circle the moon for 12 months.
Long said that what China has achieved in space exploration so far can be combined with the expertise and experience to be accumulated in lunar missions to help push the Martian program.
But he added: "It is unnecessary to wait until after we have completed the lunar mission to initiate the Martian program. We could begin during the lunar mission."
Following the launch of Chang'e 1 next year, China plans to send a vehicle to soft-land on the moon and cruise around its surface around 2012.
Space administration officials had announced earlier that China would send another soft-landing probe to fetch lunar samples around 2017.
Long said the challenge for China's proposed Martian mission, however, is to develop monitoring and control systems that can track and control the actions of the probe.
Sun told the scientists at the conference that China will "actively" participate in international cooperation regarding deep space exploration.
In the next five years, China will independently develop and launch a satellite to travel beyond the solar system, he said.
Sun credited the establishment of the disciplines of astrophysics, space environment, space astronomy, planetary exploration, micro-gravity and space bio-technology to 40 years of indigenous efforts.
Statistics indicated that in the last decade, China earmarked at least 900 million yuan (US$112.5 million) for space science infrastructure development and programs.
(China Daily July 20, 2006)