China's heavy-lift Long March-5 rocket blasts off from its launch center in Wenchang, south China's Hainan province on December 27, 2019. Photo: AFP

The rivalry between China and the United States will heat up this summer as the two countries send rovers to Mars.

It appears that China’s trek to the red planet is not being hampered by the Covid-19 outbreak, the economic downturn or growing tensions with the US.

China’s National Space Administration has just announced that the program to put a Chinese stamp on the red planet will go ahead, with preparations progressing well toward the first launch, likely from the southern province of Hainan in July or August, when the two planets are closest to each other.

It is believed that a Chinese Mars rover, its lander and peripheral equipment will be catapulted on a powerful Long March-5 rocket, landing on Mars in February after an odyssey of more than 150 million kilometers.

The same rocket, arguably with the largest payload capability of the Long March family, was also used to catapult the first prototype of China’s future cargo space shuttle in early May.

The Chinese Martian rover, named Chitu (Red Rabbit), will make China the third country to land on Mars after the United States and the former Soviet Union.

And unlike the phased programs of the two countries that initially sent spacecraft into orbit the red plant before dropping a probe or a rover to land on its surface in subsequent missions, China aims to reach the planet in one go.

The core technology essential for such a mission includes remote sensoring, autopilot, maneuvering and precise control, as well as deep space communication.

The first challenge in the mission will be ensuring that after the orbiter is captured by the gravity of Mars, it is able to reduce speed and navigate through the gravity field without crashing on the planet’s surface.

The plan is to perform an elegant soft landing in the Utopia Planitia, a large plain within Utopia, the largest recognized impact basin on Mars and in the solar system.

The mission has been four years in the making. China’s first attempt to reach Mars, in 2012, failed.

Its probe never went beyond the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere when its carrier rocket, Russia’s Zenit-2, disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean after blasting off from the Baikonur launch center in Kazakhstan.

Xinhua news agency revealed that the nation’s first indigenous Mars exploration mission was spearhead by the state-owned conglomerate China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASTC), which led the nation’s other space exploration initiatives collectively known as the Tianwen program, meaning the “quest of heaven” in Mandarin.

The contractor’s party chief Zhao Xiaojin said the upcoming mission would carry 13 payloads – seven orbiters and six rovers to look for traces of ancient water and even life.

He said at last week’s National People’s Congress that the coronavirus pandemic would not delay China’s journey into space.

State media has not made public the exact cost of the program but a post by CASTC on its WeChat account at the end of last year said it was not “astronomical” and put the overall investment at 10 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion).

There have also been reports that funds for space exploration this year may be slashed due to falling revenues from the ailing economy, especially as the central leadership prioritizes other commitments including its military buildup and poverty alleviation.

China has already sent a number of lunar probes and rovers, and some of them are still in working order, including one on the dark side of the Moon, following its latest mission at the end of 2018.

The nation is also launching modules and parts for the assembly of its own space station in low Earth orbit.

It executed several successful missions in the past decade, ranging from extravehicular activities, or space walks, to operating experimental space labs.

All these missions offer experience to draw on for the latest Mars expedition.
China has also commissioned a massive taikonaut (astronaut) training base in the alpine Qinghai province in the country’s far-west, where the terrain and landscape resemble those on Mars.

Barren, red rocks and a dry climate make the base there ideal for training personnel for future manned missions, while tourists flock there for an “extraterrestrial” experience.

China will be in a space race against the US to Mars as NASA’s fifth rover mission is also scheduled to begin in mid-July with the launch of the Perseverance.

The Perseverance will have a lonely journey home after collecting soil samples. The Chinese spacecraft’s trip, however, will be one-way.

Europe and Russia’s ExoMars mission, originally planned for this year, has been delayed until 2022 because of the coronavirus pandemic.