An illustration showing a concept for a set of future NASA robots working together to ferry back samples from the surface of Mars collected by NASA's Mars Perseverance rover. Photo courtesy of NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech
June 21 (UPI) -- A senior Chinese space official said on Monday the country is on track to bring back rocks from the surface of Mars two years ahead of the planned joint effort by NASA and the European Space Agency to do the same thing.
Sun Zezhou, the chief designer of China's first Mars mission, Tianwen 1, said in a talk celebrating the 120th anniversary of Nanjing University, that China is ready to send two spacecraft to pull off the Mars rock retrieval by 2031.
One of the spacecraft will be a lander and ascent vehicle and the other an orbiter and re-entry capsule. Zezhou said the spacecraft would leave Earth in 2028 and return Martian rocks back to Earth by 2031.
The NASA-ESA mission would leave ahead of China's mission in 2027, but would not return samples until 2033, according to its current schedule.
Zezhou said its spacecraft would land on Mars in September 2029, where it would collect samples using a four-legged robot. An ascent vehicle would leave the Mars surface, something that has never been done before, dock with a waiting orbiter, and load the samples, which will be returned to Earth.
NASA's Mars Sample Return mission also consists of two spacecrafts, following up to a region examined by its rover Perseverance in the vicinity of Jezero Crater.
The first craft would land near or in Jezero, collect and then launch the sample cache off the Red Planet. The second spaceship would capture it in Mars orbit and then bring it back to Earth.
"Only by bringing the samples back can we truly answer the question by using the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art labs, at a time when future generations can study them using techniques yet to be invented," NASA said in a statement.