China sets eyes on Mars

March 2nd, 2011 - 4:58 pm ICT by IANS  

Beijing, March 2 (IANS) China will upgrade its lunar probe spacecraft for Mars exploration in the future, the country’s top space scientist has said.

Modifications will be carried out on the existing spacecraft “for deep space exploration” and to make them “smarter”, said Ye Peijian, chief scientist of deep space exploration at the China Academy of Space Technology.

Ye, who is in charge of drafting a technical plan for exploration of the “Red Planet”, is, however, yet to get the government approval for the purpose.

As one of the leading countries in space exploration, it’s inevitable for China to explore the red planet, China Daily quoted the official as saying.

“In the last century, lunar landings and exploration were the priority, but the trend has reversed this century,” said Ye, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The China Academy of Space Technology, designers of the Shenzhou spacecraft and lunar probes, is trying to draft a technical plan for Mars exploration, Ye said.

The Mars probe will be “intelligent” enough to detect faults and correct them by itself, and able to navigate without relying on commands sent from Earth.

This self-reliance is important due to the distances involved, Ye said.

“Mars is so far away from us (from 55 million km to 400 million km depending on its orbit), and signals need a longer time to transmit. Relying on commands from Earth will be impossible,” he said.

A signal sent from Earth to Mars will take at least 20 minutes. “When scientists detect something wrong and try to correct it, the time needed to send signals will make it impossible to correct mistakes in time,” he said.

This “smart” ability will be vital when the probe uses the planet’s gravity to enter orbit, a manoeuvre that requires the probe to adjust its speed and use the gravitational pull to ensure the correct path.

“Due to the time delay in communications, it would be impossible for us to know the exact position of the probe to manoeuvre it to enter the preset orbit,” he said.

No such communication gap exists in the moon programme, as transmissions to a lunar orbiter only take a second, and scientists can accurately manoeuvre a probe to ensure its correct orbit.

But developing a “smart” probe is not the only major hurdle, he said.

Another obstacle involves establishing a monitoring network for deep space, consisting of large-caliber antennas and communication facilities, which China is currently constructing.

Qian Weiping, chief designer of the lunar probe Chang’e-2 mission’s tracking and control system, said in January that the construction of the network will be completed in 2016.

The network will have two monitoring stations one in China and the other in South America, Qian said.

The stations in China will be completed in 2012, while the one in South America will be complete in 2016, he added.

China had planned to send Yinghuo-1, a micro satellite, on top of a Russian rocket to explore the planet in 2009.

The launch, however, was postponed to later this year as Russia wanted more time to enhance the project’s reliability.

The project, the biggest space collaboration between China and Russia, will see Yinghuo-1 enter its preset orbit from Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft.

Designed by Shanghai Institute of Satellite Engineering, the 110-kg satellite will orbit the “Red Planet” more than 120 times, which will cover the time span of a year on Earth.

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