Mars rover design unveiled by Chinese space agency

China’s space agency has released the first images of a rover it plans to send to Mars within the next five years.

The 200kg rover, powered by four solar panels, will roll on six wheels. It will be delivered to Mars aboard an orbiter. The orbiter, in addition to relaying signals from the rover to the Earth and back, will also carry 13 scientific instruments including a remote sensing camera and ground penetrating radar.

The mission, announced earlier this year, will study the Red Planet’s soil, atmosphere, physical fields, the distribution of water and ice and the planet's inner structure.

China ambitiously hopes to launch the mission in July or August 2020. The delayed European ExoMars rover is aiming for the same launch window, which means Europe and China may go head to head, racing to become the second country in history to deliver a rover to Mars. So far, only the USA has achieved the feat.

China attempted to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011 as a piggy back on the failed Russian Phobos Grunt spacecraft.

China’s space agency has invited the public to submit ideas for the mission’s name and logo.

Designed to work for three months, the Martian rover will attempt to continue in the legacy of China’s famous lunar rover Yutu, which definitively stopped working earlier this month after 31 months of on and off operations.

The Martian rover will be bigger than the 60kg Yutu and have four instead of two solar panels.

The rover will be launched on a Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang space launch centre in south China's Hainan province, the Chinese authorities said. After the seven-month journey to Mars, the rover will separate from the orbiter and land in the northern hemisphere of the planet, relatively close to the equator.

While China is aiming to become the second country in history to put a rover on the Martian surface, it has been preceded to the Mars orbit by four other space powers including Europe, Russia and India.

China is heavily investing in its space programme and has celebrated multiple successes over the past years. The 2013 lunar landing of the Yutu rover and its carrier Chang'e-3 probe was the first soft landing of a man-made object on the lunar surface since the final Apollo mission in 1976.

In 2003 China became only the third country after Russia and the USA to successfully put a man in space. It has since carried out four further missions and operated a small space station. The Asian super power is reportedly readying a new round of manned missions and plans to build a permanent space station in low Earth orbit. China said it hopes to put a man on the Moon by 2036.

Although China insists its space programme exists solely for peaceful purposes, its progress raises concerns in the West. The USA in particular objects to China’s development of its technology, which it believes could theoretically be used to block adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis.

Apart from its civilian ambitions, Beijing has tested anti-satellite missiles and the US Congress has banned NASA from engaging in cooperation with its Chinese counterpart due to security concerns.

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