China is fast-tracking development of a Martian rover to be launched in 2020, with hopes of it reaching the Red Planet by 2021 - just two years after the expected landing of Europe’s ExoMars rover.
According to Xu Dazhe, the director of China’s National Space Administration, the mission received a green light in January and work has been picking up pace since then.
The timeline appears ambitious, but if successful China will become only the third country in the world to have successfully landed an object on Mars. So far, only the USA, which currently operates two rovers on the Martian surface – the veteran Opportunity and the current superstar Curiosity – has achieved the feat. The European Space Agency hopes to join the Mars exploring fleet in 2019 with its ExoMars vehicle.
"What we would like to do is to orbit Mars, make a landing, and rove around for reconnaissance in one mission, which is quite a challenge," Xu Dazhe said. "This is a project that has attracted much attention from both the science and space fields."
China, which has successfully landed a rover on the Moon in 2014, was beaten to Martian orbit by its rival and fellow aspiring space power India. India’s low-cost Mangalyaan orbiter reached the Red Planet in September 2014.
If successful, China's Martian rover will study the planet's soil, atmosphere, environment and look for traces of water.
"Researching these matters is really researching humanity itself and the origins of life," said Xu Dazhe. "Only by completing this Mars probe mission can China say it has truly embarked on the exploration of deep space."
China’s previous attempt to place a spacecraft in the orbit of Mars was lost in 2011, along with Russia’s Fobos-Grunt mission. The Yinghuo-1 satellite was travelling as a piggy-back with the sample-return spacecraft, which experienced a booster failure shortly after launch and was left stranded in the Earth’s orbit.
China is investing heavily into its space programme. Yesterday it announced it was on track to launch the core module of its permanents space station, Tianhe-1 (the Chinese for 'galaxy' or 'Milky Way'), in 2018.
China is only the third country in the world after the USA and Russia with the capability of launching humans into space. China’s first manned mission was the 2003 one-day flight of astronaut Yang Liwei. Since that time, the country has been steadily advancing its capabilities. In 2011, China launched its first single-module space station, the Tiangong 1, which hosted two manned crews in 2012 and 2013.
This year, it plans to launch components for a larger Tiangong 2 space station, as well as the Shenzhou 11 spaceship with two astronauts.
Administrators suggest a manned landing on the Moon may also be in the programme's future.
China claims it is investing into its space programme solely for peaceful proposes, advancing navigation technologies, remote sensing and communications. However, the USA fears China could use its capabilities to prevent its adversaries from using space-based assets in the case of conflict.
China is also developing the Long March 5 heavier-lift rocket needed to launch the Tiangong 2 and other massive payloads.
By 2018, the country aims to land its Chang'e-4 probe on the far side of the moon.