China’s goal of staking its claim as a major space player by 2030 is ready to take one giant leap—all the way to Mars.
The Tianwen-1 Mars mission, set to launch in July, would become the country’s first exploratory mission to the red planet. It comes nine years after China National Space Administration’s maiden Mars orbiter launch failed. A successful mission now would make China the third country to land a spacecraft on Mars, following the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and only the second to successfully operate a rover from the surface.
This time, sticking the landing presents the greatest risk. The 5-metric-ton spacecraft will be required to reduce speed from 20,000 kilometers (12,427 miles) per hour to 0. Adding another layer of complexity, the Tianwen-1 rover will attempt entry, descent and landing from orbit instead of landing on arrival. That meant completing a test landing in November to triple check heat shielding, parachute technology and propulsion.
China also needed to upgrade its deep space network facilities, including an enhanced communications system: A massive antenna reflector—comprised of 1,328 high-precision panels—was erected in Tianjin in April. Data from Mars will also be relayed to antennas in Beijing’s Miyun District and the southwestern city of Kunming from a distance of up to 400 million kilometers (248 million miles).
China has some competition. The United Arab Emirates has plans to launch its first Mars-bound orbital satellite in July. And the United States, which landed Mars rovers in 1997 and 2004, is preparing to launch another mission to the red planet later this year.
Staying on schedule is mission critical for all teams. To ensure the fastest travel and maximize fuel efficiency, the launches must thread a July timing needle. That’s when the Earth and Mars will be at their closest point—and it only happens every 26 months.
Assuming all goes to plan, Tianwen-1 is expected to reach Mars by February 2021. During its scheduled three-month stay, the rover will search for signs of water and ice, and explore the atmosphere and soil.