China intends to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2033, setting a clear timeline in Beijing’s ambitious effort to take on Washington as a superpower in space.
Beijing wants to send astronauts to the red planet over five missions running from 2033 to 2043, Wang Xiaojun, head of China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, one of the country’s state-run aerospace companies, said in remarks published by Chinese state media.
Wang told the Global Space Exploration Conference on Thursday that China would first have to return soil samples from Mars and conduct a number of other robotic missions before sending astronauts or building a research base on the planet.
Wang also described an expected third phase during which trips to Mars become commonplace, including the possible use of multiple space stations to form a “sky ladder” of stops for travellers along the route.
China’s rapid progress in mastering launch vehicle and satellite technologies needed for advanced space flight has become a source of domestic and international prestige for the Communist party ahead of next month’s celebrations for the centennial of its founding.
But Beijing’s aggressive timelines and the fast pace of launches have sparked concerns from some US politicians who worry about threats to national security if Washington loses its technical lead.
Nasa also aims to send crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s after returning to the Moon later this decade.
Analysts fear that a lack of co-ordination, trust and communication between the countries could lead to accidents or unnecessary security concerns. US law has banned Nasa from working with the Chinese space programme since 2011.
Beijing has placed the core module of its space station in the Earth’s orbit and became only the second country after the US to successfully land a rover on Mars this year.
China insists that its ambitions are peaceful and has said it welcomes international collaborations. Beijing is also exploring the possibility of working with Russia to build a research base on the Moon’s surface.
Three taikonauts, as Chinese astronauts are known, took up residence last week in the Chinese Space Station, where they will stay for three months to unpack supplies and prepare it for future visits and scientific research.
Chinese president Xi Jinping congratulated the crew in a video call that was broadcast to the nation on Wednesday, saying the station would “make pioneering contributions to the peaceful use of space by humanity”.
“We Chinese taikonauts now have a long-term home in orbit,” Nie Haisheng, head of the three-man crew, replied.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing