A manned mission may be coming to Mars sooner than Andrew Weir predicted in his novel The Martian, later turned into a film by Ridley Scott and set in 2035.
After the historic landing of lunar probes on the far side of the moon earlier this month, and this week’s announcement that they’re growing cotton seeds up there, China has its eyes set on a bigger and brighter destination: The Red Planet. According to the deputy director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Wu Yanhua, the space agency plans on sending a probe to Mars as early as 2020, followed by manned missions.
China’s initial attempt to explore Mars was cut short when the spacecraft carrying the Yinghuo-1 orbiter malfunctioned and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean in 2012. But now, riding on the success of the Chang’e-4 mission — the first soft landing on the moon since NASA’s Apollo 17 in 1972 — the country is taking its technology to a planet far, far away (33.9 million miles away to be exact).
Before the escapades on Mars begin, China is looking to the Chang’e-4 to unlock the mysteries of the moon’s dark side. The 1.3-ton robotic lander contains an airtight container filled with silkworm eggs, potato and cotton seeds, rapeseeds, yeast, fruit flies, and a small plant, which is expected to produce the first flower on the moon, according to State news agency Xinhua. On January 15, the CNSA released a picture of cotton shoots growing well alongside other plants.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 15, 2019
While the Chang’e-4 takes care of the biological experiments, the Jade Rabbit 2 rover is recording images and collecting data on lunar water ice.
“It’s a small step for the rover, but one giant leap for the Chinese nation,” Wu Weiren, the chief designer of China’s lunar exploration project, told CCTV.
Beijing’s space agency also plans to launch a Chang’e-5 mission at the end of this year to collect samples from the near side of the moon. So to recap: we can expect more moon probes and Mars missions from China.
Which begs the question: Where’s NASA in all this?
“For the moon, we’d like to return humans in the late 2020s,” NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Steve Clarke said on CBS last November. “And we’re looking to take humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s.”
Mark Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut, best sums up the race to space:
America’s space program has always set the example for the world. China's moon landing is a scientific achievement no doubt. But it's also a reminder that we need to get back to policy over politics—or the world might leave us behind. https://t.co/XYP9UwQFHP
— Captain Mark Kelly (@CaptMarkKelly) January 4, 2019
Cover photo: Matt Damon in The Martian
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