China's space agency claims it will return Mars samples 2 years before NASA

If successful, China's Tianwen-3 mission could retrieve Mars samples in a historic first.
Chris Young
China's Mars Zhurong rover.China National Space Administration

China's space agency aims to complete its Mars sample return mission by 2031, two years before NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) complete their joint mission.

Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter and rover mission chief designer Sun Zezhou outlined a new mission profile for China's Mars sample return during a June 20 presentation, as per a SpaceNews report.

China's space agency could retrieve Mars samples before NASA and ESA

The new mission profile shows how two separate launches will set off for the red planet in late 2028, with the aim of returning samples to Earth in July 2031. Zezhou made his presentation at a deep space exploration technology forum, which was also part of a seminar series celebrating the 120th anniversary of Nanjing University. 

China's mission will utilize a simpler architecture than NASA and ESA's joint Mars Sample Return mission. It will carry out a single Mars landing and collect samples from a single site.

According to Zezhou's outline, Tianwen-3 is expected to land on Mars around September 2029, after which it will conduct surface sampling, drilling, and mobile intelligent sampling. The ascent vehicle will be made up of two stages, and it will be designed to remain intact at speeds of 4.5 kilometers per second.

Tianwen-1, which launched an orbiter and rover to Mars in July 2020, will perform an aerobraking test in Mars orbit later this year to help preparations for Tianwen-3. Tianwen-2 is set to launch towards a near-Earth asteroid for sampling at some point in 2025. 

China's Tianwen-3 could carve a place in space history

The primary goal for Tianwen-3 may be to make history by returning the first-ever Martian samples to Earth. The NASA-ESA mission will return more comprehensive and diverse samples to Earth for analysis, but this will require more complex architecture, meaning it will most likely return to Earth after 2031.

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In fact, in March, NASA announced a delay to its Mars Sample Return campaign, as it will now use two separate spacecraft for one lander mission to lower the risk by adding redundancy. Under the new schedule, ESA's Earth Return Orbiter will launch in 2027, and the samples will return to Earth in 2033.

China's Tianwen-3 mission, by contrast, will send a single lander and an ascent vehicle, which will return to an orbiter and return module. These will be sent to Mars on two separate launches aboard a Long March 5 and Long March 3B rocket.

The mission will build on the success of China's 2020 Chang'e-5 lunar sample return mission. If China's space agency is successful, it will have truly cemented itself as one of the world's leading space powers, alongside the U.S. and Russia.

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