China has ambitious plans to touch down on Mars by 2020, likely with a rover, and to collect its own samples from the red planet 10 years after that, a top aerospace scientist has revealed.
China already sent a probe, the Jade Rabbit (or Yutu) to the moon last year. It is expanding its horizons this time.
Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the country’s lunar project, said the new Mars programme aimed to create space probes – an orbiter and rover – for Mars, according to the Beijing Times.
Speaking to the 22nd International Planetarium Society Conference in Beijing, which drew 35 member countries, Ouyang gave timetables including collecting samples from the planet by 2030, according to the newspaper.
By comparison, the United States is trageting to launch a manned mission to Mars by 2030 onwards - the first country to announce such plans in 1990. The US also hopes to send a manned mission to an asteroid by 2020.
So far, US space agency Nasa’s Curiosity rover has been leading discoveries on Mars. Since its launch in 2011, it has discovered initial hints that the planet was once host to microorganisms and may have once been awash in water.
Ouyang said China's space agency has set its sights on exploring the solar system – a vast undertaking as the system's diameter, if Pluto is considered the farthest point, spans more than 80 astronomical units or 11 billion kilometres.
Ouyang said one important goal is to explore life and detect solar systems beyond the earth’s reach. The programme aims to compare the origins of earth-like planets, along with the solar system’s formation and how it has changed through millennia.
It even wants to explore the possibility of recreating a planet based on this information, he said.
Studying Mars’ topography, atmosphere, geological features and internal structure may hold clues to its origin and evolution.
Since Nasa published the first close-up picture of Mars in 1965, advanced countries such as the US, Russia, Japan, India and China joined the race to explore the mysterious planet, the fourth rock from the sun.
WATCH: When China put a rover on the moon
China’s Mars probe programme started in 2009 in a partnership with Russia. However, the Russian spacecraft Fobos-Grunt carrying a Chinese probe Yinghuo-1 crashed on November 9, 2011, after lift-off.
After the “disastrous” start, China started its own Mars project. Manned Mars missions have long been a distant dream as the journey is more expensive and will take longer than trips to the moon.
The country’s rapid economic development has allowed it to splash funds on its space programme while other countries’ space budgets have shrunk, especially in America.