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Mars: China's next goal?

2014-09-26 09:01 Xinhua Web Editor: Gu Liping

Mars receives two visitors from the Earth this week.

NASA's new spacecraft MAVEN entered the orbit around Mars on Sept. 21 to hunt for the planet's lost water. And India's first Mars probe has reached Mars on Sept. 24, said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding that India is the first country to have reached the Red Planet on its first attempt.

After China's successful soft landing on the moon late last year, will Mars be its next goal? No official plan has been published yet, but some experts have disclosed the country's interest.

Ouyang Ziyuan, a leading scientist in China's moon program, told the International Planetarium Society conference in Beijing in June that China plans to send a Mars rover around 2020, collect samples and bring them back to Earth around 2030.

Russia launched a rocket carrying a China-made probe to Mars in 2011, but the mission failed because of an accident in the orbital transfer.

Ye Peijian, a leading design adviser for China's Chang'e-2 and Chang'e-3 moon probes, has called repeatedly during the annual sessions of the national legislature and political advisory body for an early start of a Mars exploration mission.

"India has gone ahead of us," Ye says.

Is China capable of probing Mars? Many experts are confident.

With current technologies, China could send a probe to orbit and land on Mars in one mission, Ye says.

"We already lag behind (India) in time, so we should do it better," Ye says.

Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology, says there is a good chance that China can send a Mars rover in 2020, since it has the technologies for deep space observation and control.

Much of the infrastructure is already in place. Two large ground control stations in Jiamusi, in the northeast Heilongjiang Province, and Kashgar, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region will enable China to conduct long-distance observation and control of spacecraft on Mars.

The distance between Mars and the Earth ranges between 55 million kilometers and 400 million kilometers. Experts say China has no problem in communication, observation and control of a Mars probe, even at the farthest distance.

According to Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Chang'e-3 moon probe, China is developing the Long March 5 rocket, which could carry orbiting probes to near-earth asteroids, Venus and Jupiter, and support an unmanned landing on Mars.

However, China would need a more powerful rocket to return to Earth, Sun says.

Long Lehao, chief designer of the carrier rocket series with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, says the Long March 5 rocket is expected to be launched by the end of 2015.

If successful, it will greatly improve China's ability to explore space. "Generally speaking, we will have a more powerful rocket than India," Long says.

Chang'e-2 probe has flown about 83 million kilometers from the Earth. "I believe there's no problem in sending a spacecraft to Mars," Long says.

China could launch a much bigger probe than India's, he adds. China's Mars exploration program would likely include orbiting, landing and roving in one mission.

But experts say China still faces many technological difficulties.

Pang Zhihao says entering the Mars orbit and landing will be very difficult. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had experienced high failure rates in early Mars missions.

China needs to develop Mars landing technologies and improve spacecraft autonomous capabilities, experts say.

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