After successfully putting the Jade Rabbit lunar rover on the moon, Chinese space experts say the country's planned Mars vehicle will be larger, tougher and a better climber.
On Tuesday, a real-sized model of the Mars rover is on display at the Airshow China 2014 in south China's Zhuhai City, offering a rare glimpse of the spacecraft still being designed.
"Our current concept is that it will have six wheels, like Yutu (Jade Rabbit), but will be larger in size and better at crossing obstacles," says Jia Yang, who led the team that developed Yutu.
"Yutu can climb over obstacles no higher than 20-centimeters, but has to bypass larger rocks. This will not work on Mars, where places are full of large rocks like those in the Gobi Desert. So we must improve its adaptability to complex territory," he says.
The 2-meter-long model on display is the prototype. Its final look and functions are yet to be decided.
China has not announced an official plan for a Mars probe, but Ouyang Ziyuan, a leading scientist in China's moon probe mission, has said China plans to land a Mars rover around 2020, collect samples and bring them back around 2030.
Jia expects the Mars buggy to be solar-powered, its weight close to NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers at about 180 kg. NASA's latest Curiosity rover weighs 900 kg and is powered by nuclear battery, but Jia says the capability of China's carrier rockets limits the size of its Mars rover.
Yutu reported a mechanical malfunction during the second lunar day after its successful landing in December last year, prompting Chinese experts to stress the fault response on the Mars rover.
"The Mars environment is more complicated and adverse than that of the moon. We're working to overcome the worst scenario - dust storms that will significantly lower the energy output of the solar battery," Jia says.
Displayed with the rover is a model of a capsule designed to carry the vehicle into the planet's atmosphere. Jia says they are still working on the capsule's parachute and heat-proof structure that will enable it to land in the extremely thin air, one of the hardest parts of the Mars mission.
China's Mars ambition
Chinese scientists have eyed the Red Planet as the next destination after a successful soft landing on the moon late last year. Calls for speeding up China's own Mars mission mounted after India's probe reached the planet's orbit in September, following similar success by the United States and Europe.
China made one unsuccessful attempt to reach Mars in 2011, when a China-made probe boarded a Russian rocket to Mars but failed to complete the mission because of an accident in the orbital transfer.
Li Zhongbao, vice head of the China Academy of Space Technology, says China is capable of probing Mars.
The distance between Mars and Earth ranges between 50 million and 400 million kilometers, compared with 380,000 kilometers between the moon and Earth, but Li says China has powerful rockets and interstellar communication and control technologies for making the travel possible.
China's success in lunar landing has honed its landing technologies, though landing and survival of the rover remains the most difficult part of the mission, according to Li.
Humans have sent 43 probes to Mars since 1960, of which 19 succeeded.
(Xinhua News Agency November 11, 2014)