China's Zhurong Mars rover captured this panorama of the Red Planet. Visible in the foreground are the rover's solar panels and communications equipment.

China’s Zhurong Mars rover, part of the country’s Tianwen-1 mission, captured this panorama of the Red Planet.
(Image credit: CNSA)

China plans to haul Mars samples to Earth in 2031, two years before NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) aim to do so, according to media reports. 

The target date was announced in a Monday (June 20) presentation (opens in new tab) by Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Tianwen 1 Mars orbiter and rover mission that arrived at the Red Planet in February 2021, according to SpaceNews (opens in new tab).

Zezhou’s presentation, reportedly given at a Nanjing University seminar, says China is targeting a two-launch mission with liftoff in late 2028 and a sample return to Earth in July 2031, the report said. 

Related: Amazing panorama shows China’s Chang’e 5 landing site on the moon (photos)

“The complex, multi-launch mission will have simpler architecture in comparison with the joint NASA-ESA project, with a single Mars landing and no rovers sampling different sites,” SpaceNews wrote.

NASA recently asked for public input on its joint sample return plans, after the agency decided to develop a second Mars lander due to the mass requirements of the mission. Adding that second lander pushes the arrival of Mars samples on Earth back to 2033, from 2031.

The NASA-ESA campaign will haul home samples collected by the American space agency’s Perseverance rover, which has been exploring the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater since February 2021. The project will employ a European-built “fetch” rover to grab the samples and place them aboard an American-made Mars ascent vehicle (MAV). The MAV will launch the sample container into Mars orbit, where it will be snagged by a European Earth return orbiter.

This zoomed-in section of HiRISE’s imagery of China's Mars rover Zhurong and its tracks, captured on March 11, 2022, shows that the rover inspected the backshell and parachute that helped it land safely in May 2021.

This image of China’s Mars rover Zhurong and its tracks, captured on March 11, 2022 by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows that the rover inspected the backshell and parachute that helped it land safely in May 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona)

China’s effort will be more streamlined, with dirt and rock collected from one small area via “surface sampling, drilling and mobile intelligent sampling, potentially using a four-legged robot,” SpaceNews wrote.

China already has experience in delivering samples from the moon. The nation’s Chang’e 5 mission touched down on the moon in December 2020 and shortly after delivered to Earth the first lunar samples since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 did so in 1976.

And China already has considerable Mars experience thanks to Tianwen 1, which launched in July 2020 and arrived at the Red Planet in February 2021. Tianwen 1 consists of an orbiter as well as a lander and a rover, called Zhurong; this latter duo touched down in May 2021.

The Tianwen 1 orbiter and Zhurong are both still going strong. The rover entered a planned hibernation in May of this year to attempt to outlast the bitterly cold Red Planet winter.

In 2021, both NASA officials and members of the administration of President Joe Biden warned that Chinese exploration may pose a threat to American interests.

During a May 2021 virtual Senate hearing, for example, NASA chief Bill Nelson twice showed a printed-out picture of Zhurong on Mars, saying the Chinese program is “adding a new element about whether we want to be serious” about NASA sending humans back to the moon. NASA has a program, Artemis, that aims to put boots on the lunar surface in 2025 or so.

Scientifically, however, China has been working to increase its visibility in the space community. It released a high-resolution global map of the moon earlier in June, and in May released plans for its Tianwen 2 asteroid sample return mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2025.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth’s on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada’s Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.

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