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China’s Ambitious Plans in Space: The Moon, Mars, and Beyond

A week after its successful Mars landing, China announced on Saturday that it had deployed a Land Rover on the planet’s surface, an accomplishment only the United States had previously achieved.

The solar-powered rover, named Zhurong after a fire god in Chinese mythology, drove off its landing platform and reached Martian soil on Saturday morning, the Chinese space agency said. The planet’s surface is expected to be explored for at least 90 days.

The Mars mission, China’s first, seems less glamorous than NASA’s most recent, as it essentially replicates the feats Americans accomplished decades ago. Still, it is another milestone in China’s endeavors to make itself a “great space power,” as its top leader Xi Jinping put it last month.

Further potential milestones lie ahead of us. Here’s what you should know about them.

In January 2019, China became the first country to land a probe on the other side of the moon, the part that is constantly facing away from the earth. It was China’s second successful moon landing after one in 2013.

That year, it put a rover on the lunar surface that is still working today, well beyond the three months it was expected to take. By the end of April, it was nearly half a mile from its starting point in Von Kármán Crater, near the moon’s south pole, according to a report on Chinese state television.

In December, China sent another vehicle to the moon. It collected nearly four pounds of rock and earth near a volcanic feature called Mons Rümker and brought them back to earth – the first lunar samples since those collected by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Some of the samples were made publicly available on display in Beijing with great fanfare.

China names its lunar probes after Chang’e, a moon goddess in its mythology. Three more are planned by 2027, including additional rovers, a flying probe and even a proposed experiment on 3D printing in space, according to the Chinese space agency.

The missions are set to lay the foundation for a lunar base and visits by astronauts, or taikonauts as the Chinese call them, in the 2030s. So far, only the American Apollo programs have put people on the moon.

In March, the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced it would be working with China to build a lunar research station, although the countries are not yet due to reveal details of joint plans.

China’s April launch of the main module for its newest orbiting space station attracted more international attention than expected for all the wrong reasons. After reaching orbit, the main rocket booster crashed threateningly back to Earth in what is known as “uncontrolled reentry”. The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and leading to criticism of how China is launching its heaviest missile, the Long March 5B.

This mission was the first of eleven needed to build China’s third and most ambitious space station by the end of 2022. Two more Long March 5B missiles will carry additional modules, and other variants will launch smaller parts. Four missions, one scheduled for June, will bring Chinese astronauts back into space after more than four years.

China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but these are meant to work for a decade or more. Mr. Xi likened it to Mao Zedong’s “Two Bombs, One Satellite” admonition, which referred to China’s race to develop a nuclear weapon, mounted it on an ICBM, and put a satellite into orbit. Like all of China’s achievements in space, it is touted as evidence of the strength of the Communist Party-led state.

The International Space Station, jointly developed by the United States, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its planned life in 2024. What happens after that is unclear. NASA has suggested keeping the station in operation for a few more years. Russia has announced that it will withdraw by 2025.

If the station goes out of service, China could be the only game in town for some time.

The station – as the first two are called Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace” – can accommodate three astronauts for long-term missions and up to six for shorter periods of time. China selected a team of 18 astronauts, some of whom are civilians (only one is a woman). The first three are slated to spend three months in space, which would beat the 33-day record for Chinese astronauts set in 2016.

Hao Chun, director of the Chinese manned space agency, told the state news media that astronauts from other nations would be allowed to visit aboard Chinese or their own spacecraft, even though they would need a docking mechanism “according to Chinese standards.” which are different from those on the International Space Station. He said some foreign astronauts were learning Mandarin in preparation.

In one fell swoop, China’s Mars mission, named Tianwen (“Questions to Heaven”) after a classic poem, completed a series of accomplishments NASA had accomplished over several years. It reached orbit around the planet in February, safely put a vehicle on the surface on May 15, and has now released a Land Rover.

The Soviet Union was the first country to land a ship on Mars in 1971, but seconds after touching down, the lander stopped communicating, likely because of a sandstorm. A single incomplete or indecipherable image was transmitted. Since then, a number of other attempts by several countries to get to the surface have failed.

By that month, only the United States had successfully landed Mars – eight in all, most recently from the Perseverance rover in February. (China attempted to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011, but the Russian rocket that was carrying it failed to leave orbit and both crashed back to Earth.)

Four days after China’s lander Utopia Planitia, a large basin in the northern hemisphere where NASA’s Viking 2 landed in 1976, the country’s space agency released its first photos of the planet’s surface and said the mission was as planned run away.

The agency released two black and white photos of the rover on the surface on Saturday. The rover will conduct experiments to study the topography, geology, and atmosphere of Mars. One goal is to better understand the distribution of ice in the region, which in theory could help sustain future visits from people.

China has announced that it will send a second lander to Mars by 2028 and ultimately bring samples back from the planet. It’s a complex feat that NASA and the European Space Agency are already working on, with the hope that the soil and stones Perseverance collected can be brought home in 2031. China’s mission could come this decade, sparking a potential race.

In addition to the possibility of a future crewed mission to Mars, China is planning a single 10-year mission to collect a sample from an asteroid and pass a comet. It also suggested orbiters for Venus and Jupiter. An orbiting telescope similar to the Hubble, which was first launched in 1990, is slated to launch in 2024.

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