China’s announcement this week of its intention to fly the red flag on Mars in 2020 would not raise many eyebrows because of the four-year deadline Beijing has set for the mission. After its first Mars shot was aborted in 2011 — when the Russian rocket carrying the Mars probe failed to leave Earth’s orbit — Beijing has poured billions of yuan into its space programme to prepare for another Mars mission in 2020 when the orbital mechanics of Earth and Mars opens a narrow window, allowing spacecraft to achieve an optimal trajectory by combining the least amount of fuel and the shortest journey time.
That the Mars programme would yield short-term economic and military benefits (such as a new generation of rockets and communications satellites sought after by foreign clients) must be another powerful motivating factor for the Chinese. As probably was the unprecedented success of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission in 2013, which prompted the Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) to give more steam to its Mars programme.
The proposed mission profile has a three-pronged approach to explore the Red Planet with an orbiter, a lander and a six-wheeled rover. The probe, expected to be launched atop a Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang space launch centre in the southern island province of Hainan, will make a seven-month journey to Mars.
The lander will then separate from the orbiter and touch down near the Martian equator, where the rover will explore the ruddy surface for over three months. It will carry an array of equipment, including a remote sensing camera and a ground-penetrating radar, to study the planet’s soil, environment and inner structure, and also look for traces of water and ice.
A successful Mars shot would make China the fifth country/group or consortium to orbit Mars, following the United States, Russia, Europe and India. The US is so far the only country to successfully land a rover on Mars, albeit a joint European-Russian mission is now on its way there.
The biggest challenge for the Chinese — or for any country — would be to pull off a landing on Mars, which has a reputation of being the graveyard of exploratory spacecraft. Since 1960, of the dozens of probes launched from Earth towards Mars, only a handful could complete their mission. The others were outright failures, thanks to reasons ranging from the unexpected — as when a Martian storm destroyed Nasa’s Polar Lander during touchdown in 1999 — to the bizarre, when careless mission controllers mixed up metric and imperial data and smashed the Mars Climate Orbiter against the planet’s atmosphere. In 2003, Japan’s Nozomi became yet another casualty when a solar flare damaged its electronics and the mission had to be abandoned. Earlier, the British probe Beagle 2, whose hard landing on Mars knocked out its power and communications systems, too, had failed to break this jinx.
So it’s good to see space agencies persistently using bold science again to get to know the Red Planet better. Both Mars and the Earth were very much alike billions of years ago: A lot of water, warm oceans, rain and similar atmospheric systems. It’s a big puzzle that despite all this, life started on one planet and the other became dry and cold. But thanks to data from recent Mars missions, we now know that Mars did engender life — possibly in the form of microbes — and it is a matter of time before we stumble onto it, or what remains of it.
Prakash Chandra is a science writer. The views expressed are personal