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China plans a Mars rover and orbiter for 2020 launch opportunity

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

09-12-2014 10:44 CST

Topics: mission status, China Mars 2020

There is now another mission to Mars formally in the works. For several months there have been reports of a Chinese Mars mission planned for 2020, and in November China's State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defence announced plans to go forward with its development. It will include both an orbiter and a rover. The mission is planned for launch to Mars during the 2020 launch opportunity (so probably in July or August 2020). 

The program includes plans for Mars sample return in 2030, which we all know is an expensive undertaking. Another article, from the South China Morning Post, makes it sound as though the Mars mission was competing against two other ambitious mission proposals: a human mission to the Moon, and three near-Earth asteroid landers. So this announcement could signal a hiatus in China's lunar ambitions. Or it might not! Reading future mission plans from Google translations of secondary sources is hazardous.

The video below includes an animation of the planned mission, showing (from 1:47) a lander detaching from the orbiter before the orbiter arrives in Mars orbit. The lander does not obviously have any instruments on it -- in the video, it appears just to be a platform from which the rover deploys. If you watch to the end of the video, you'll see a display from the Zhuhai Airshow that includes models of orbiter, lander, and rover; on the screen in the back you can see more of the computer animation of the mission, including initial deployment of the rover's mast.

There are several photos of the display at the Zhuhai Airshow here.

China's Mars 2020 rover

User "cirr" at

China's Mars 2020 rover
Photo from a display at the Zhuhai Airshow, November 10, 2014. More photos from the show are available here.

I haven't read anything about the planned scientific capabilities of the rover, beyond its obvious mast-mounted cameras; this article from November 11 discusses a rover with a mass of about 180 kilograms, similar to the Mars Exploration Rovers. It sounds like the orbiter will have a suite of mapping instruments aimed at acquiring global data sets, appropriate for a country's first orbiter at Mars. According to an article on, in Google translation:

Reporters from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation was informed of the Mars exploration project is expected to be implemented in 2020, the initial plan to achieve around the exploration of Mars and lunar exploration, the Mars probe to obtain independent scientific data to achieve across deep space exploration technology. Through independent exploration and joint exploration of Mars surround with the [rover], get the Martian surface topography, soil characteristics, material composition, water ice, atmosphere, ionosphere field and other scientific data.

At the same airshow they also unveiled a different prototype Mars rover, which former Mars Exploration Rover driver Scott Maxwell examined in detail in a Google+ post. I don't know for sure but I suspect that this prototype is designed for use on Earth, to test the control technologies they'll need to deploy in a rover built for Mars, much like JPL's FIDO rovers.

I'll be watching this thread on closely for any news and updates on the shape of this mission -- that's where I got nearly all the links mentioned in this post. I wouldn't be able to cover Asian missions without the watchful eyes of worldwide space enthusiasts!

See other posts from December 2014


Or read more blog entries about: mission status, China Mars 2020


ethanol: 12/09/2014 11:06 CST

After China's systematic approach to their "moon sample return", which frankly looks more like a miniature dress rehearsal for a manned mission, I would be surprised if they were to suspend their plans for a manned lunar landing. But then again, I thought that the Yutu rover was equipped with some autonomous navigation ability (which makes sense for a mars rover but not for a lunar rover) so maybe they have been working multiple options all along. I vote that they do both.

Paul McCarthy: 12/09/2014 11:45 CST

This is great -- exactly what's needed. Detection of life, past or present, on Mars (presumably most accessibly) or of course anywhere else, is now the equivalent of "First Man in Space" and "First Man on the Moon" -- guaranteed to bring huge prestige to the race-winner. With India, China, Europe (and ~Russia) all now in the race, the mighty US powerhouse must at last get serious! And due to the uncertainties and unpredictability of where, how, or if at all, life might be detected on Mars, the US is FAR from being able to assume that just getting to Mars a few years earlier or with slightly better gear will guarantee its primacy. Europa, Enceladus, Titan and other icy moons may well offer better odds, especially sampling the geysers of the first two. These also (currently) offer the USA targets where it still enjoys a substantial lead. So, hopefully, China's entrance (and India's) will spark that innate competitiveness of the US, and we will now see Presidents and Congress take this seriously and fund rapid, comprehensive, programs of exploration. As a start, now that Europa finally seems underway, how much of the Europa-destined hardware can be simply duplicated for a very rapid Enceladus mission? Sampling the geysers of both seems like the obvious low-hanging fruit that may win the race and on which other nations will certainly have their eyes!

CosmosQuest: 12/11/2014 10:53 CST

Paul, You said: ".....being able to assume that just getting to Mars a few years earlier or with slightly better gear will guarantee its [ China's ] primacy. Europa, Enceladus, Titan and other icy moons may well offer better odds, especially sampling the geysers of the first two." Agree with you totally as to China's aspirations to do an unmanned probe mission looking for life as a good choice, but with all due respect, I don't think the "icy moon geysers" you think have high probability of harboring life or its earliest compounds, is likely to succeed for the same reasons Emily L suspected actions on Venus aren't likely attributable to "low viscosity" lava flows. The icy-moon" geysers and the forces that carved Baltis Vallis sinuous rills are likely similar (if not same) and seemingly have nothing to do with internal planetary mechanical forces as we think. "The reason carbonatites are always invoked for Venus is because of the absurdly long sinuous lava channels found there -- the grandmother of them all, Baltis Vallis, is 1,800 kilometers long and nearly the same width along its entire length with not a single tributary. It is really virtually impossible to explain its existence except by invoking a super-runny magma with a melting temperature close enough to the ambient temperature that it basically won't freeze. Even with that it's hard to explain, because there is no obvious volcanic structure at its source and no obvious terminal deposits. When people talk about how it formed they usually just say "woo woo woo carbonatites woo woo woo" and wave their arms a lot and quickly go on to the next topic. I wrote my master's thesis studying the topography along its length, which presumably started out being monotonically downhill but isn't like that anymore. It's really weird. But cool. I can't wait to see what Venus Express makes of it, though I'm not sure it'll have the resolution.... "

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