China has announced new details of its mission to explore Mars, indicating that it intends to send an uncrewed spacecraft to the red planet in just four years' time, with a planned launch occurring sometime in 2020.
The project will include three components: an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. "What we want to achieve is to orbit Mars, land, and deploy the rover in one mission, which will be quite difficult to achieve," China's National Space Administration director Xu Dazhe told media in Beijing last Friday.
The aim of the mission will be to study Mars' surface and atmosphere, analysing soil and looking for any traces of water that can hopefully be found.
"Researching these matters is really researching humanity itself and the origins of life," said Xu. "Only by completing this Mars probe mission can China say it has truly embarked on the exploration of deep space."
While numerous missions have sent spacecraft to Mars, only NASA has so far been successful in actually landing on the red planet with its Curiosity rover, so if China can pull this off, it will be in rare company.
The nation's previous attempt in 2011 to get a craft into orbit around Mars was unsuccessful, when the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft carrying the Chinese orbiter Yinghuo–1 failed to leave Earth's orbit, seeing both craft destroyed over the Pacific Ocean in 2012 upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
India's space program was the most recent national effort to succeed in getting a craft in orbit around Mars with its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) aka Mangalyaan in 2014, which made India the first Asian nation to reach Mars orbit (and the first to succeed on its first attempt). This accomplishment, it seems, has only spurred China on.
"Although we are not the first Asian nation to send a probe to Mars, we want to start at a higher level," aerospace expert Ye Peijian from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told China's state-run news agency Xinhua last month. "We have less than five years till the launch, but we are confident. The probe is being developed by the team that completed the Chang'e–3 lunar probe."
Chang'e–3's successor, Chang'e–4, is expected to launch a little sooner than the Mars mission – in 2018. And it's not just another mission to the Moon, but is set to explore wholly unknown territory – being the first lunar mission aiming to land on the far side of the Moon.
While much of China's space efforts can be seen as revisiting things already achieved by the US and others, at the rate they're going, they're definitely an exciting nation to watch when it comes to space exploration. And the 2020 Mars mission – which would touch down on the red planet in 2021, if all goes according to plan – is a key part of the program.
"Our long-term goal is to explore, land, and settle [on the Moon]," Wu Weiren, chief engineer of China's Moon and Mars missions, told the BBC. "We want a manned lunar landing to stay for longer periods and establish a research base."