Conquest of Mars: China wants to overtake the USA and Europe

News hardware Conquest of Mars: China wants to overtake the USA and Europe

Published on 06/28/2022 at 17:05

NASA (USA) and ESA (Europe) aim to bring Martian rocks back to Earth in 2033. But China has every intention of grilling them, doing the same as early as 2031. Martian conquest is more topical than ever.


  • Bring back samples of Mars, the new star race
  • Two years ahead for China?
  • Ambitions that are not without risk

For several decades now, Mars has been at the center of all attention regarding the exploration of the planet and the search for traces of life on its soil. If missions have been carried out with more or less success (and especially failures, at the beginning) since the 1960s, the early 2000s marked a significant turning point in the exploration of the red planet. Indeed, in 2004, NASA managed to land two rovers on Mars: Spirit, then Opportunity, which made it possible to discover unpublished photos of the places, but also to collect and analyze precious samples of Martian rocks.

In 2012, NASA repeated the operation by allowing the Curiosity rover to land on Mars. Perseverance is the last NASA robot to arrive on Mars, in 2021. The missions of these different rovers vary, but overall they aim tocarry out on-site surveys to look for traces of lifeand to learn more and more about the planet.

However, until then, no sample collected on site has ever left Mars. The rovers that are “deposited” on the surface of the planet are not intended to leave it: they have a limited lifespan. Opportunity, for example, “lived” on Mars for 5351 sols, the equivalent of 15 Earth years: it was a giant sandstorm that sealed its fate.

Bring back samples of Mars, the new star race

NASA no longer wants to simply analyze Martian rock samples remotely. American scientists, but also those of the ESA, now want to be able to study them on Earth, with more precision. The reason is simple: before considering sending men to Mars by 2040, it is necessary to know precisely what they will set foot ons, especially since the Martian soil is probably not very welcoming. Martian dust is said to be very toxic to humans, in addition to being a powerful mechanical oxidant.

ESA’s Fetch Rover

The MSR project, for “Mars Sample Return”, led by NASA and ESA, is divided into three distinct space flights. From 2027, a probe called Earth Return Orbiter (ERO), designed by ESA, will be sent to be positioned in the orbit of Mars. Then, in 2028, two flights are scheduled : the first will contain the Fetch Rover of the ESA, equipped with a robotic arm intended to recover the samples collected by Perseverence. The second, which will take off shortly after, will contain the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), responsible for sending the sample container into Mars orbit. The latter will then be captured by the ERO which will bring them back on board to Earth, with a planned landing in 2033.

ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter

Conquest of Mars: China wants to overtake the USA and Europe

This scenario differs from the previous one, in which the rover and the MAV were sent to Mars at the same time. NASA and ESA deemed this strategy too risky and decided to change their plans.. The consequence is that the schedule has changed from a return to Earth in 2031 to a return in 2033.

Two years ahead for China?

On his side, China wants to achieve the same feat, but two years ahead of schedule. The Tianwen-3 mission should allow it to bring Mars samples back to Earth in 2031doing what NASA and ESA deem impossible: make only two flights instead of three. The first rocket would be responsible for the lander and the ascent vehicle, while the second would take care of the orbiter and the return module.

A Long March 5 rocket and a Long March 3B rocket would be used. It should be emphasized thatat the start, the mission imagined by the CNSA only included a Long March 9 rocket : China has therefore made concessions too!

The Tianwen-3 mission includes a landing around September 2029, but unlike the American-European MSR mission, the collection of samples will not have been done beforehand. A Chinese rover will have to carry out the operation at that time. In October 2030, the Chinese mission will be able to return from Mars orbit to Earthfor a scheduled return to solid ground in July 2031.

The Zhurong rover, sent by China to Mars in 2020 via the Tianwen-1 mission, is not equipped to take the samples to be sent back to Earth.

Conquest of Mars: China wants to overtake the USA and Europe

Ambitions that are not without risk

China has embarked on a very broad plan to develop its space missions and activities between 2021 and 2025, and the Tianwen-3 mission is one of them. Even if it will take place after this period, the work carried out in the coming years will be decisive in ensuring its proper planning, and in resolve currently unresolved issues.

It should also be noted that if the Tianwen-1 mission took place in 2020, the Tianwen-2 mission should take place in 2025 : This will be a near-Earth asteroid sampling mission. A dress rehearsal before March a few years later.

As a result, we can consider that nothing is decided yet and that China still has everything to prove around this ambitious project. But this is also the case for the USA and Europe. The race for Martian samples is more than ever on.

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