China Mars Exploration Programme

Robotic Mars probe, consisting of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Launch planned for Q3 2021 and soft landing on Mars in 2022.

Date of creation: 2016. Agency: SASTIND/CNSA. First mission: exp. 2020. Missions: 2 planned.


On 11 January 2016, the Chinese government officially approved a robotic probe mission to Mars, following an 8-year pre-research. The mission will launch a Mars probe, consisting of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, in the third quarter of 2020. The probe will conduct a soft-landing on Mars in 2021, when the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding. The mission was said to have been personally endorsed by Xi Jiping, the Chinese President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

According to the SASTIND/CNSA, the probe will first enter the Mars orbit, before sending the lander to soft-land on Mars surface and deploy the Mars rover to explore the surrounding area of the landing spot. The orbiter will continue orbiting Mars to survey its surface and also provide data relay service for the lander and rover. The landing spot is expected to be between 5° and 30° north of the Mars Equator.

The mission won’t be an easy ride, given the technical hurdles and notoriously poor success rate in previous attempts to land on Mars. According to Zhang Rongqiao, Chief Designer of the Mars probe, the long time-delay in communications means that the lander and rover must possess a high degree of autonomous operating capability. In addition, the weaker sunlight due to longer distance to the Sun and the Mars atmosphere poses greater challenge for the lander and rover’s power supply compared with a Lunar landing mission.

The most challenging phase of the entire mission will be the atmospheric re-entry, which requires the lander to de-accelerate from about 26,000 km/h to below 1,500 km/h within several minutes. So far just over half of all attempts to land on Mars have succeeded. The limited launch window and long mission duration mean that there is only one chance to succeed. Once having successfully landed, the lander and rover will send back data on the red planet’s soil, atmosphere and other features, including any ice or water it may find.

If the orbiting/landing mission is a success, China also plans to follow up with a Mars soil sample return mission in the late 2020s.

Like China’s lunar exploration programme, the Chinese Mars exploration mission is also overseen and managed by SASTIND, an agency under the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). The agency, responsible for China’s civilian space programme, often uses the name of “China National Space Administration” (CNSA) in its exchanges with foreign space agencies.

The primary contractor for the Mars mission is the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC), with all of its three spacecraft R&D subsidiaries involved. The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST, or 5th Academy) is the primary contractor for the Mars probe system, as well as the designer for the lander and rover. The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST, or the 8th Academy) is responsible for the orbiter and some other sub-systems. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) is the primary contractor for the CZ-5 launcher system.

Spacecraft Design

The Mars probe will consist of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, launched directly onto Earth-Mars transfer orbit atop a CZ-5 heavy-load launcher rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Hainan Island. The launch window will be set between July and August 2020, and the probe will arrive at Mars about seven months later.

Like previous Mars landing missions, the Chinese Mars lander will also employ hypersonic re-entry to de-accelerate, before deploying parachute(s) to further slow down. This will then be followed by a powered descent to finally soft-land the Mars surface.

If the landing is successful, the Mars rover will then be deployed to explore the surrounding areas of the landing spot. The six-wheeled rover, which has a mass of 200 kg, carries a total of 13 pieces of scientific equipment including remote-sensing cameras and radar to explore the surface and undersoil of the planet. The rover is powered by four solar panels and has a designed life of 3 Martian months (92 Earth days).

The Mars orbiter is designed to carry remote-sensing payloads to survey the surface of Mars from orbit, as well as providing communication relay with Earth for the lander and rover.

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