China plans Mars sample return mission with 6-legged drone, robot-helicopter

Who will be the first to bring a piece of Mars to Earth?
Baba Tamim
Panorama of Mars acquired by China's Zhurong Mars rover.
Panorama of Mars acquired by China's Zhurong Mars rover.


Tianwen-3, China's forthcoming Mars sample return mission, is beginning to take shape as more information comes to light. 

China intends to use its Long March 5 rockets to launch two vehicle stacks to Mars in a tandem launch sometime in the future, maybe as early as 2028, according to multiple media reports on Saturday. 

Slides from the presentation that were posted on the Chinese social media platform Weibo show a little drone that resembles a helicopter and some sort of six-legged robot, both next to details about sample collecting for Tianwen-3.

"China just might add a helicopter and 6-legged robot to Mars sample-return mission," said a Space news article.

However, "it's not yet clear whether China or the United States and Europe will be the first to bring a piece of the Red Planet back to Earth."

The combined lander and launcher is intended to land on the surface of Mars, gather and store up to 500 grams of material, and then launch back into space, as per presentation by Liu Jizhong and Hou Zengqian's presentation at the International Conference of Deep Space Sciences. 

The landing and two-stage ascent vehicles will be in one stack, while the orbiter and return craft will be in the other stack.

Meanwhile, the orbiter will circle Mars patiently, awaiting rendezvous and sample transfer with the return vehicle that will store the sample for transport to Earth.

The two-stage launch vehicle, which weighs roughly 790 pounds, is made up of a solid-rocket first stage and a liquid-propellant upper stage. With the help of the orbiter's robotic arm, the upper stage will rendezvous and dock with the orbiter. 

The mission's surface sample may be obtained using a drill and robotic arm to gather soils from as deep as 6 feet below the Martian surface, according to the presentation slides.

Mission Mars

The mission also seeks to perform mobile sampling in addition to sample gathering. 

The presentation provides a list of requirements for potential landing sites, such as the presence of past liquid water, height, terrain, geological diversity, and latitudinal orientation that will allow Taiwan-3 to return to Martian orbit with its sample. 

A robotic arm and drill could be used to gather soil samples from as deep as 6 feet below the Martian surface for the mission's surface sample. 

However, it is unclear from the presentation slides whether the sample collection would be carried out by the multi-legged robot or the drone that resembles a helicopter.

Martian material from Taiwan-3 would return to Earth in July 2031 if the mission launches during China's 2028 launch window. 

This would go ahead of the 2033 target date now established for a similar Mars sample return mission being planned by NASA and the European Space Agency.

The new presentation, however, omitted the anticipated launch date that had been included in earlier Tianwen-3 disclosures, suggesting that China may have revised its expectations for the mission, noted Space news report. 

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