Airshow China 2014
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Visitors look at a prototype model of a Mars rover on display at the China International Industry Fair in Shanghai. Photo: Xinhua

China unveils first Mars rover and exploration system for red planet

A prototype of a vehicle that could go to the red planet is to go on public display after a Chinese rover put on the moon broke down this year

China's main contractor supplying its space programme has unveiled details of a prototype Mars rover.

Photographs of the vehicle have been published by Xinhua before it goes on display at an international aviation show that starts today in Zhuhai .

The vehicle has been built by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and comes after the failure of China's rover on the moon early this year.

Ouyang Ziyuan, China's chief scientist for lunar missions, told state media earlier this year the nation's first mission to Mars could be launched as early as 2020 and that by 2030 an unmanned spacecraft would return from the planet with samples. The government has yet to set an official timescale for any mission.

The six-wheeled Mars rover looks almost identical to the lunar rover, Yutu or Jade Rabbit, with wing-spreading solar panels, head-mounted cameras and a fixed robotic arm at the front.

But there are some significant design changes to deal with the different environment on Mars.

To beef up communications over longer distances, the Mars rover carries a larger dish antenna than Yutu.

The wheels on the Mars rover are also more solidly built to deal with the rockier landscape on the red planet.

The entire Mars exploration system will include a planet orbiter, landing craft and the rover, according to China Aerospace Science.

Questions including whether the rover should carry a nuclear power source and the types of scientific experiments on board have yet to be answered.

Yutu was crippled in January soon after landing, probably by fine dust and low temperatures on the earth's nearest neighbour, and is still languishing on the surface of the moon after efforts to revive its power supply failed. The average temperature on Mars is lower than on the moon due to the greater distance from the sun and the notorious dust storms on the red planet would also pose a challenge to the Chinese rover.

Scientists said earlier this year that they had been asked to look for rocky, arid sites in Tibet to build a research centre to test a Mars rover.

Tibet is cold and dry, with dust storms, and is the nearest equivalent on the mainland to Martian conditions.

Researchers have also proposed farming worms rich in protein as a potential source of food for the first residents on the planet.

But China's Mars exploration project still faces numerous uncertainties. The Mars project, which is likely to be far more costly than China's lunar missions, also needs to compete for money and resources with other equally ambitious space missions under consideration by the government.

China is reviewing proposals, scheduled to start in about 2020, to put a human on the moon and send spacecraft to land on three asteroids with the highest probability of hitting the earth.

Other nations including India have sent space probes to Mars, but the risks are high due to the technical challenges of reaching the far-flung planet.

Russia, for instance, has failed on all its Mars missions, the latest of which carried the first Chinese Martian satellite, Firefly One, in 2011.

China also lags behind nations such as Russia in critical areas in space technology, including building large rockets and deep space communication.

The China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition opening today, also known as Airshow China 2014, was first held in 1996.

Some of China's most advanced aircraft will be on display at Zhuhai's compact international airport, according to local media. They include the Shenyang J-31, or Gyrfalcon, and the Xian Y-20 large military transport aircraft.

The Shenyang J-31 is a jet fighter developed by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation. The display of the aircraft has surprised some observers who suggested the fighter might be available for export to nations friendly with China in the near future.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Rover to explore Mars unveiled