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China could bring first Mars samples to Earth before NASA

China is aiming to bring the first rock samples from Mars to Earth in 2031, two years before NASA plans to perform the coveted feat.

The ambitious Tianwen-3 sample return mission was outlined this week by Sun Zezhou, chief designer of China’s current Mars orbiter and rover mission, SpaceNews reported on Monday.

To achieve the collection and delivery of Mars rock samples, China plans to launch a spacecraft to the Red Planet in late 2028 in a mission that would end with the delivery of samples to Earth in July 2031.

Part of the reason for the tighter time frame is the simplicity of China’s proposed mission, which, unlike NASA’s more complex plan, would involve a single Mars landing and a more straightforward sample collection process.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) demonstrated last year that it has the technology to reach Mars and deploy a rover to the surface. Returning samples to Earth requires several additional steps, including blasting the material back into space in an ascent vehicle, transferring it to an Earth-bound spacecraft, traveling back toward Earth, and releasing a capsule containing the samples for the final descent to the ground.

The CNSA and NASA missions are highly complex and require a huge amount of research and testing, with both space agencies well aware that there is the potential for things to go wrong at any stage.

But for scientists, the rewards of successfully delivering samples to Earth could be huge. The opportunity to use advanced laboratory equipment to study material from Mars offers the best chance of determining if any form of life ever existed on the Red Planet. Such a discovery could help scientists unlock some of the mysteries of the origins of life here on our own planet.

China has been pumping huge amounts of money into its growing space program, which besides Mars and lunar missions also includes the recent commissioning of its own space station in low-Earth orbit. The nation’s president, Xi Jinping, said the new space station will open “new horizons” as humans seek to learn more about the cosmos.

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Trevor Mogg
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