At 2:16 a.m. local time on 8 November 2011, the desolate steppe of Baikonur, Kazakhstan, shook to the roar of rocket engines. A Ukrainian-built Zenit-2SB vehicle thundered into orbit carrying the Russian Fobos-Grunt spacecraft, destined to perform a landing on Mars’ large moon, Phobos. Also aboard was a small, 250-pound (113 kg) probe known as “Yinghuo-1” (“Firefly” or “Luminous Fire”). The latter was China’s long-awaited first mission to the Red Planet and rode “piggyback” on the main Fobos-Grunt spacecraft. For the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), the launch was a huge leap for the world’s most populous nation. Only eight years earlier, China became the third discrete state to launch its own astronaut, and in 2007 and 2010 placed its Chang’e 1 and 2 probes into orbit around the Moon. With Mars as the next step, it seems that the possibility of seeing the Red Flag on the red surface of the Red Planet is by no means far-fetched.
China’s red dawn received a significant push in March 2007, when Sun Laiyan, director of the CNSA, signed a co-operation accord with his counterpart Anatoli Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency. Its provisions called for joint exploration of the Mars system and included specific language for the assembly and launch of Fobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1. Over the next two years, the Chinese craft—a cube-shaped box, measuring 2.5 x 2.5 feet (0.7 x 0.7 meters)—gradually rose from blueprints at the Shanghai Academy of Space Flight to actual hardware, and in October 2011 it was transferred to Baikonur for integration with Fobos-Grunt and the Zenit, ahead of launch.
According to SpaceDaily, “Yinghuo-1 was a fairly low-cost and low-key way for China to begin its planetary exploration program” and “if the program is treated as an exercise in starting such a program, it should be considered a success.” After insertion into low-Earth orbit, the combined spacecraft would have been boosted onto an 11-month trajectory to reach the Red Planet in October 2012. The minutes, hours, and days after launch, however, created a chain of events which would spell catastrophe. Two orbit-raising maneuvers by Fobos-Grunt failed to occur, and it soon became obvious that the whole mission was lost. The spacecraft ignominiously fell back to Earth and burned up in the atmosphere in January 2012.
It was a devastating blow for China’s Mars ambitions. Yinghuo-1 would have spent at least one full Earth-year in orbit around the Red Planet, investigating its plasma and magnetic field environment, studying ion-escape processes and mechanisms, making occultation measurements of the Martian ionosphere, and observing sandstorms on its red-hued surface. To accomplish these scientific ends, it was equipped with a compact payload of ion and electron analyzers, a mass spectrometer, a magnetometer, a radio-occultation sounder, and a high-quality, dual-camera imaging system with 660 foot (200 meter) resolution.
With the demise of Yinghuo-1, little has come to light about specific future Chinese missions, whether piloted or unpiloted, to the Red Planet, but there has been lively discussion about a Mars orbiter (and possibly lander) to be despatched in the 2016-2018 period. If flown, it will ride atop a Long March-3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in southern Sichuan Province. Budgetary provisions for China’s next Five-Year Plan have left the mission poorly defined at present, but an August 2011 paper from the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) has yielded some tantalizing detail.
The paper suggested that the “mother ship” would be a multi-faced spacecraft, operating from a highly elliptical, high-inclination orbit of 85-95 degrees and charged with performing chemical and mineralogical analyses of the planet’s surface and atmosphere. Meanwhile, a stationary lander would conduct several days of ground operations, with particular focus upon the identification of subsurface water ice and in-situ monitoring of the Martian climate. In line with the stated requirements of China’s current Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), the CAST paper highlighted the benefits of international participation in the lander and scientific instruments for the orbiter. It has been suggested that Chinese and European Space Agency (ESA) tracking and communications assets will be utilized on the mission.
The 4,400-pound (2,000 kg) orbiter is expected to take the form of a three-axis-stabilized “bus,” powered by gallium arsenide solar arrays and lithium-ion batteries. Its instrument suite—if approved—is impressive in its scope and offers great promise for an exciting mission of exploration. It includes a CCD camera, surface-penetrating radar, infrared and gamma ray spectrometers, and high-energy and solar wind particle detectors.
After reaching Mars a little under a year after launch, the spacecraft will enter a “capture” orbit, which will be gradually reduced in altitude to permit the deployment of the 40-100 pound (18-45 kg) lander. Protected by a rigid “aeroshell” heat shield, the battery-powered lander will plunge into the Martian atmosphere at an estimated 10,500 mph (16,900 km/h) and will descend to the surface, touching down somewhere in the northern hemisphere. The “semi-soft” landing will be accomplished via parachute. Although the lander itself will most likely be a stationary platform, as opposed to a mobile roving vehicle, and should endure for no more than three to five days on the surface, its success would be a huge shot in the arm for China’s aspirations in deep space.
In the wake of its role in support of the lander, the orbiter will maneuver itself into a “science-gathering” orbit, with an altitude of about 186 miles (300 km), to prepare for up to two Earth-years circling Mars. Nowhere in the CAST document is there any specific mention of Chinese astronauts journeying to the Red Planet, although the scientific agenda for the orbiter hints at the scouting-out of suitable landing sites and the identification of water ice reserves, both of which would provide beneficial information for a human mission.
Still, outside of government control, interest in deep-space exploration and footprints on Mars among China’s 1.35 billion people is strong. Two years ago, Wang Yue, an instructor from the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, participated alongside three Russians and two Europeans on the 520-day final segment of the “Mars-500” isolation experiment. Operated in an experimental facility on the outskirts of Moscow, the six crew members spent almost 18 months—from June 2010 until November 2011—testing systems and procedures and facing some of the obstacles which might someday face a human crew, heading into the unknown, bound for Mars.
It is true that China lacks an official focus upon a human expedition to the Red Planet, but the rapid rate with which this communist nation has developed its own human space program and raised it to fruition—launching its first astronaut in October 2003, performing its first spacewalk in 2008, and occupying its first experimental space station in 2011-2012—has been truly dramatic and breathtaking to behold. With a “modular” space station firmly scheduled for launch into orbit by 2020, and lunar bases sometime thereafter, there is little reason to doubt China’s resolve. And there is equally little reason to doubt that a Chinese citizen will stand on the blood-red plains of Mars, clutching a blood-red, yellow-star-spangled banner at some stage in the future.
The nation’s fixation with Mars intensified somewhat with the ongoing “Mars One” initiative to establish a permanent, reality-TV-funded human colony on the planet by 2023. According to People’s Daily Online, by April 2013 more than 600 Chinese applications to participate in the mission had been received, out of a total of around 20,000.
At a governmental level, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed hopes two years ago that co-operation with China was one possible route to the Martian surface. “When the time comes for humans to visit Mars,” said White House science adviser John Holdren in testimony before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, and science subcommittee, “it’s going to be an extremely expensive proposition and the question is whether it will really make sense … to do it as one nation, rather than do it in concert.”
Whatever reality the coming years and decades bring, it can be asserted with absolute certainty that our first piloted voyage to Mars—whether to orbit the planet, to land on its surface, or to explore one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos—will be several orders of magnitude beyond anything hitherto attempted in terms of challenge and risk. Technologically, culturally, politically, and financially, the mission will elevate our species to a new level. For when humans set foot on Mars, their journey will represent something far longer, more difficult, and more arduous than even Project Apollo achieved.
There will be flags and footprints, of course. Maybe those flags will include the Star-Spangled Banner, or the Russian tricolor, or the red field and five gold stars of the People’s Republic of China. Maybe all three flags will one day flutter together, alongside the emblems of other nations, against a stark red landscape. Maybe not. But when we do arrive on Mars, our mission to get there will have already delivered untold riches, for it will have firmly established us—for the first time in human history—as a true spacefaring civilization.
This article is published jointly between AmericaSpace and our partner The Mars Society‘s journal The Mars Quarterly.