China sets its sights on Mars

China has released images and specifications for a new Martian rover, the latest mission in the country's increasingly ambitious expansion of its space program.

Xinhua/AP
This artist's rendering provided to China's Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday, by the lunar probe and space project center of Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, shows a concept design for a Mars rover and lander.

China has given the world a first glimpse at the latest part of its ambitious space program.

The country's space agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), released details of a planned Mars probe set to make the voyage to the red planet in 2020. The Tuesday report also included pictures of the probe's design.

The probe details reflect the lofty aims of the CNSA, which has undertaken increasingly difficult and daring steps out into space.

In 2003, China became the third country, after the Soviet Union and the United States, to launch a human into space with their own rocket. Since then, the country sent their own "Jade Rabbit" rover to the moon in 2013, and became the first country to launch a quantum-enabled communications satellite into orbit earlier this month.

This is not the first time China has attempted to launch a probe to Mars, according to Space.com. Yingho-1, intended to be the first Chinese probe to the red planet, experienced technical difficulties during launch that left it stranded in orbit until it burned up on re-entry, along with a Russian probe sharing the same rocket. The new probe will be the first attempt to revive China's Mars mission since the failure.

Despite setbacks like Yingho-1, China is determined to cast itself as a major spacefaring power. In April, President Xi Jinping declared April 24, 2016, the country's first-ever "Space Day" and called on scientists throughout the country to contribute to the effort.

"In establishing Space Day, we are commemorating history, passing on the spirit, and galvanizing popular enthusiasm for science, exploration of the unknown and innovation, particularly among young people," Mr. Xi said, reported the state-run Xinhua News Agency. "Becoming an aerospace power has always been a dream we've been striving for."

The Mars probe would certainly reflect that dream.

Xinhua, China's state news agency, reported that the probe would weigh 200 kilograms, or 440 pounds, and would be solar powered. The rover will sport, among other instruments, a remote-sensing camera and ground-penetrating radar.

The rover is set to touch down somewhere in Mars's northern hemisphere, which offers better geographic conditions for exploration.

Currently, only the United States has probes exploring the surface of Mars. There is a joint Russian/EU mission headed toward the planet that could change that, but China's probe will not be far behind.

"The probe is expected to orbit the red planet, land and deploy a rover all in one mission, which is quite difficult to achieve," Xu Dazhe, director of the CNSA, told Xinhua in April. "Only by completing this Mars probe mission can China say it has embarked on the exploration of deep space in the true sense.”

The Mars mission has high stakes for the future of China's space program.

If it is successful, it will be a significant milestone on the way to bigger things for the CNSA. Ambitious plans are already in the works for a crewed moon landing in 2036. If everything goes as planned, China would be the second nation to put people on the moon, and the first to do so since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

Another failure would be a significant setback to these plans and could significantly dampen China's spacefaring ambitions.

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