China aims to bring Mars samples to Earth 2 years ahead of NASA and ESA mission

HELSINKI — China’s Mars sample return mission aims to collect samples from the Red Planet and deliver them to Earth in 2031, two years ahead of a joint NASA and ESA mission.

Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter and rover mission, presented a new mission profile for China Mars Sample Return on a June 20 presentation in which he outlined plans for a two-launch profile, lifting off in late 2028 and delivering samples to Earth in July 2031.

The complex, multiple-launch mission will have a simpler architecture compared to the joint NASA-ESA project, with a single landing on Mars and no rovers sampling different sites.

However, if successful, he would deliver the first collected Martian samples to Earth; a goal widely recognized as one of the primary scientific goals of space exploration.

In March, NASA announced plans to delay the next phase of its Mars Sample Return campaign and to split a lander mission into two separate spacecraft to reduce overall program risk.

ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter would be launched in 2027 and the samples would return to Earth in 2033 according to the revised schedule.

The Chinese mission, named Tianwen-3, will consist of two combinations: a lander and an ascent vehicle, and an orbiter and a return module. The suits will be launched separately on the Long March 5 and Long March 3B rockets respectively.

Earlier statements about the mission suggested using a single future Long March 9 super heavy rocket.

The mission will build on Mars entry, descent and landing technologies and techniques demonstrated by Tianwen-1 in May 2021as well as regolith sampling, automated lunar orbit rendezvous and mooringand high speed atmospheric re-entry success achieved by the 2020 Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission.

Sun presented the mission profile at a forum on deep space exploration technologies, also as part of a series of seminars marking the 120th anniversary of Nanjing University.

Landing on Mars would take place around September 2029. Sampling techniques will include surface sampling, drilling and mobile smart sampling, potentially using a four-legged robot.

The ascent vehicle will consist of two stages, using solid or liquid propulsion, and will have to reach a speed of 4.5 kilometers per second, according to the presentation.

After rendezvous and docking with the standby orbiter, the spacecraft will leave Mars orbit at the end of October 2030 for a return to Earth in July 2031.

Sun added that the Tianwen-1 orbiter will perform an aerobraking test in Mars orbit later this year as part of the preparation for the sample return mission.

Technological complexity and autonomy requirements represent some of the major challenges of the mission.

Another aspect noted will be that the landing would take place around the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, in which the mission will probably land. Related difficulties include potential sandstorms and low availability of solar power.

China’s Mars sample return mission appears to have support from relevant space and government authorities.

The country’s ambition to carry out this unprecedented mission has been declared previously and has been included in the development plans of the National Space Administration of China through 2021-2025.

Completion of “key technology research on Mars sampling and return” was noted as a goal for the same period in a government space white paper released in January.

The sample return will follow two missions. Tianwen-1 launched in July 2020, sending an orbiter and a rover to Mars, was the country’s first independent interplanetary mission.

Tianwen-2 will be a near-Earth asteroid sampling mission that will also visit a main-belt comet. Current plans point to a 2025 launch.

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