Chinese probe to accompany Russian rocket on Mars mission

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 June, 2009, 12:00am

A Chinese probe will ride a Russian rocket to Mars next year, fulfilling some scientific goals and satisfying the two countries' desire to work more closely on space exploration.

The probe, the Yinhuo-1 (or firefly), will carry several cameras, a magnetic field sensor and an ion detector, making it much lighter than its co-passenger, the Phobos-Grunt, a Russian landing craft that weighs more than 2 tonnes.

According to the Shanghai Institute of Satellite Engineering, where the probe was assembled, the Yinhuo-1 will separate from the Phobos-Grunt after a 10-month journey and stay in a Martian orbit while the latter continues to Phobos, the larger and innermost of Mars' two moons.

The Chinese probe's mission will be to scan for water and signs of life and to collect data on the upper atmosphere of the red planet.

But Jiao Weixin, a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences at Peking University, said the spacecraft's simple design and scientific mission fitted well with the goals of the country's first trip to Mars.

'Yinhuo-1 is a pathfinder. We take it as a chance to test some of our new equipment and technology. If they work, we will build larger, more sophisticated probes in the future,' he said. 'The goals may sound unimaginative, but Chinese and Russian scientists have devised some clever experiments.

'For instance, the ion detector will study the relationship between oxygen molecules and solar winds. By measuring how fast and how much the oxygen molecules are escaping from the Martian atmosphere, we may be able to explain whether Mars was 'blown' dry by the sun.'

Professor Jiao said the Phobos-Grunt and Yinhuo would 'talk' to each other once they had reached their destinations - a type of communication that had not been attempted by previous flights and would give researchers information about how radio waves travelled through the Martian atmosphere.

Unlike Chang'e, the lunar probe project carried out by the China National Space Administration, this mission will be overseen by authorities in Shanghai.

'It is mainly because the incoming signals would be very weak, and can only be picked up by some special antennas in the city,' Professor Jiao said.

Onto the red planet

The Yinghuo-1 will be China's first mission to another planet, coming after its manned space-flight project and moon exploration programme

Mission timeline

Oct 2009 Yinghuo-1 and Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft to lift off from Baikonur cosmodrome

Aug-Sep 2010 After voyage of about 10 months, Yinghuo-1 will separate from Phobos-Grunt and enter Mars orbit

2012 Yinghuo-1 expected to conclude mission after studying magnetic field of Mars and interaction between ionosphere, escaping particles and solar wind