The surface of Mars is a pretty desolate place at first glance. The soil is many times as dry as the driest desert on planet Earth, the temperatures swing from one extreme to the other, and the air is incredibly thin and toxic. And yet, there’s ample evidence that the planet was once much warmer and wetter, with lots of flowing and standing water on its surface. Over time, as Mars’ atmosphere was slowly stripped away, much of this water was lost to space, and what remains is largely concentrated around the poles as glacial ice and permafrost.
For years, space agencies have been sending robotic landers, rovers, orbiters, and aerial vehicles to Mars to learn more about when this transition took and how long it took. According to China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which includes the Zhurong rover, there may have been liquid water on the Martian surface later than previously thought. According to new research from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Zhurong rover observed salt-rich dunes in the Utopia Planitia region that showed cracks and crusts, indicating the possible presence of water as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago.
In June 2021, China announced it was partnering with Russia to launch a lunar exploration program that would rival NASA’s Artemis Program. This program would include robotic landers, orbiters, and crewed missions that would culminate with the creation of an outpost around the Moon’s southern polar region – the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). While the details are still scant, periodic updates have provided a “big-picture” idea of what this lunar outpost will look like.
Case in point, at a recent national space conference, a team of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) presented a list of objectives for the ILRS. According to China Science Daily, these objectives will include Moon-based astronomy, Earth observation, and lunar in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). In addition, the CAS scientists indicated that China plans to establish a basic model for a lunar research station based on two planned exploration missions by 2028, which will subsequently expand into an international base.
The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has advanced considerably since the turn of the century, boasting new launch vehicles, robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, and a modular space station in orbit (Tiangong). According to various sources, they plan to advance even further in the coming years and decades. Given the tight-lipped nature of the Chinese government and its agencies, much of what we periodically hear is based on snippets of information, gossip, and speculation.
However, in a recent interview with the state-owned CCTV new network, chief designer Huang Zhen confirmed that China’s space agency has established the Crewed Lunar Program Office. This program will consist of additional robotic missions to explore the Moon, followed by crewed missions and the creation of a base camp. Zhen also confirmed that he and his team at the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) are currently developing the key technologies that will make this happen.
Back in early December 2021, China’s Yutu 2 rover made headlines when it spied what looked like a curious cube-shaped object on the Moon’s surface. Of course, speculations ran rampant. And it didn’t help matters any when the China National Space Administration (CNSA) nicknamed the object the “mystery hut.”
An update today from Yutu’s cameras reveals the true nature of this object. Yup, it’s just a rock. And not very cube-shaped, either.
On May 14th, 2021, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) achieved another major milestone when the Tianwen-1 lander successfully soft-landed on Mars, making China the second nation in the world to land a mission on Mars and establish communications from the surface. Shortly thereafter, China National Space Agency (CNSA) shared the first images taken by the Tianwen-1 lander.
By May 22nd, 2021, the Zhurong rover descended from its lander and drove on the Martian surface for the first time. Since then, the rover has spent 63 Earth days conducting science operations on the surface of Mars and has traveled over 450 meters (1475 feet). On Friday, July 9th, and again on July 15th, the CNSA released new images of the Red Planet that were taken by the rover as it made its way across the surface.
On Thursday, June 17th, China took another major step in its ongoing drive to become a superpower in space. Just two months after the core module of the Tiangong space station (literally, “Heavenly Palace”) was sent to orbit, the three astronauts that will be the station’s first crew launched to space. The mission, Shenzhou 12, lifted off atop a Long March-2F rocket at 09:22 p.m. on Wednesday evening local time (09:22 a.m. EDT; 06:22 a.m. PDT) from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert.
The Chang’e-4 mission, the fourth installment in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, has made some significant achievements since it launched in December of 2018. In January of 2019, the mission lander and its Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit 2) rover became the first robotic explorers to achieve a soft landing on the far side of the Moon. Around the same time, it became the first mission to grow plants on the Moon (with mixed results).
In the latest development, the Netherlands-China Low Frequency Explorer (NCLE) commenced operations after a year of orbiting the Moon. This instrument was mounted on the Queqiaocommunications satellite and consists of three 5-meter (16.4 ft) long monopole antennas that are sensitive to radio frequencies in the 80 kHz – 80 MHz range. With this instrument now active, Chang’e-4 has now entered into the next phase of its mission.