The Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation shifted its 2020 Mars Mission plan into overdrive, successfully launching a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket, on 5 May.
This was as the globe limped into month five of the Covid-19 pandemic.
After a little reported launch failure in April, a new site, on Hainan Island, a landmass in the South China Sea off the coast of Guangdong, was selected for the latest test launch. Historically, China has conducted rocket launches inland in sparsely populated areas such as the Gobi desert or isolated launch complexes in Shanxi.
Coastal launch areas allow rocketeers to safely monitor pieces of spent craft as they hit the ocean surface where they are retrieved and reused – a practice that limits environmental damage and maximises cost efficiency.
After a smooth launch, the Long March rocket reached a low-earth orbit where it remains, conducting basic systems tests. The craft will remain in space for a little over a week, when it will return to earth and be retrieved.
The Long March rocket, which can thrust 22 tonnes of payload into orbit, will carry the crew capsule for the Space Station that China is constructing.
According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the capsule being trialled can hold six astronauts and 1 100kg of cargo – twice that of the previous Shenzhou Capsule.
Looking to the Red Planet
China’s ambitious plan to go to Mars this year is dependent on the success of the Long March rocket. The rocket, albeit in an altered configuration, is scheduled to be used to power Chinese space exploration projects in the future.
Tianwen-1, the name given to the Mars mission, is scheduled to go ahead in July this year. Tianwen, which means “questions to heaven”, was inspired by a 4th-century BCE long-form poem, according to chief engineer, Ge Xiaochun.
Other planned missions to Jupiter and sample collection missions to near-earth objects will also carry the Tianwen name.