Having orbited the planet since February, the Chinese craft, called Tianwen-1, is expected to send a landing vehicle on a difficult descent through the thin Martian atmosphere, possibly as soon as Saturday. If all goes well, that vehicle and the land rover it is carrying will join three NASA spacecraft that are already surveying the planet.
The Chinese Mars mission may seem less sexy than NASA’s latest, since it is essentially repeating feats that the Americans accomplished decades ago, but it represents another milestone in China’s ambition to make itself a “great space power,” as its top leader, Xi Jinping, put it last month.
More potential milestones lie ahead. Here’s what to know about them.
In January 2019, China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, the part that perpetually faces away from Earth. It was China’s second successful moon landing, after one in 2013.
That year, it put a rover on the moon’s surface that still operates today, far beyond the three months it was expected to last. As of late April, it had roamed nearly half a mile from its starting point in the Von Kármán crater near the moon’s southern pole, according to a report on Chinese state television.
In December, China sent yet another craft to the moon. It scooped up nearly 4 pounds of rocks and soil near a volcanic feature called Mons Rümker and brought them back to Earth — the first lunar samples since the ones collected by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Some of the samples were put on public display in Beijing with great fanfare.
China names its moon probes after Chang’e, a moon goddess in its mythology. Three more are planned by 2027, featuring additional rovers, a flying probe and even a proposed experiment in 3D printing in space, according to statements from China’s space agency. The missions are meant to lay the foundation for a lunar base and visits by astronauts, or taikonauts, as the Chinese call them, in the 2030s. So far, only the U.S.
programs have put people on the moon.
In March, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said it would work with China on the construction of a lunar research station, though the countries have yet to offer details of any joint plans.
A Rival Space Station
China’s launch in April of the main module for its newest orbiting space station drew more international attention than expected — for the wrong reasons. After reaching orbit, the main rocket booster tumbled ominously back to Earth in what is called an “uncontrolled reentry.” The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and spurring criticism of how China carries out the launches of its heaviest rocket, the Long March 5B.
More launches like it are coming anyway. The mission was the first of 11 needed to build China’s third, and most ambitious, space station by the end of 2022. Two more Long March 5B rockets will carry additional modules, and other variants will launch smaller parts. Four missions, one planned for June, will return Chinese astronauts to space after more than four years.
China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but this one is intended to function for a decade or longer. Xi, the Chinese leader, compared it to the “two bombs, one satellite” exhortation of Mao Zedong’s era, which referred to China’s race to develop a nuclear weapon, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile and put a satellite in orbit. Like all of China’s accomplishments in space, it is being touted as evidence of the prowess of the Communist Party-run state.
The International Space Station, jointly developed by the United States, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its intended life in 2024. What happens after that is unclear. NASA has proposed keeping the station going for a few more years; Russia has announced that it intends to withdraw by 2025.
If the station is decommissioned, China’s could be the only game in town for some time.
The station — named, like the first two, Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace” — will be able to house three astronauts for long-term missions and as many as six for shorter periods. China has selected a team of 18 astronauts, some of whom are civilians (only one is a woman). The first three are scheduled to spend three months in space, which would surpass the 33-day record for Chinese astronauts set in 2016.
Hao Chun, the director of China’s Manned Space Agency, told state news media that astronauts from other nations would be allowed to visit, whether aboard Chinese spacecraft or their own, though they would need a docking mechanism “in line with Chinese standards,” which are different from those on the International Space Station. He said some foreign astronauts were already learning Mandarin in preparation.
Mars and Beyond
China’s Mars mission, called Tianwen (“Questions to Heaven”) after a classic poem, is trying in one go to complete a trifecta of feats that NASA accomplished over a number of years. It is already in orbit around the planet, and the next step is to land a craft on the surface, which will release a rover. On Friday, China’s space agency said the landing would be attempted sometime between Saturday and Wednesday.
The Soviet Union was the first country to land a craft on Mars, in 1971, but 14 seconds after touching down, the lander stopped communicating, probably because of a sandstorm. It transmitted a single incomplete or indecipherable image. Since then, a number of other attempts to reach the surface, made by several countries, have failed.
Only the United States has managed successful Mars landings — eight in all, the most recent by the Perseverance rover in February. (China tried to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011, but the Russian rocket that was carrying it failed to get out of orbit, and both crashed back to Earth.)
China’s Tianwen orbiter has been surveying Mars and the intended landing site, Utopia Planitia, a large basin in the northern hemisphere where NASA’s Viking 2 landed in 1976.
If it nails the landing, the Chinese craft will conduct a number of experiments studying the planet’s topography, geology and atmosphere. One goal is to better understand the distribution of ice in the region, which, in theory, could help sustain future visits by people.
China has said it plans to send a second lander to Mars by 2028 and, ultimately, to bring samples back from the planet. It’s a complex feat that NASA and the European Space Agency are already working on, with hopes that soil and rocks collected by Perseverance can be brought home in 2031. China’s mission could happen this decade, setting up a potential race.
In addition to the possibility of a future crewed mission to Mars, China is planning a single, 10-year mission to collect a sample from an asteroid and pass by a comet. It has also proposed orbiters for Venus and Jupiter. In 2024, it plans to launch an orbiting telescope similar to the Hubble, which first launched in 1990.