China Intends to Return Mars Samples to Earth Before NASA, ESA

China’s Mars sample return mission aims to deliver samples from the Red Planet to Earth in 2031—two years ahead of a NASA and ESA joint project.

Tianwen-1 chief designer Sun Zezhou this week revealed plans for a two-launch profile, lifting off in late 2028 and delivering samples to Earth in July 2031.

China’s mission, dubbed Tianwen-3, will consist of a lander and ascent vehicle, as well as an orbiter and return module, according to SpaceNews(Opens in a new window). Each combination will launch separately, resulting in a single Mars landing in September 2029. If successful, it would deliver to Earth the first collected Mars samples.

Zezhou presented the mission profile at a deep space exploration technology forum, part of a seminar series marking the 120th anniversary of Nanjing University.

China knows a little something about delivering cosmic samples: Its Chang’e-5 mission, which touched down on the Moon in 2020, grabbed the first lunar samples since the Soviet Union in 1976. The nation’s Zhurong rover, meanwhile, recently detected signs of water in Martian samples from 700 million years ago.

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NASA in March announced a delay(Opens in a new window) for the next phase of its Mars Sample Return campaign, which will bring home samples collected by the Perseverance Rover.

Instead of sending a NASA-led Sample Retrieval Lander and ESA-based Earth Return Orbiter in 2026, the agency opted to split the retrieval spacecraft into two separate landers: One for the rover, the other for the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), and in so doing reduce the overall risk of the program. Under the revised schedule, ESA’s orbiter will launch in 2027, with samples arriving back on Earth in 2033.

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