China National Space Administration (CNSA) was seriously considering their plan for Mars mission as possible to finalize in 2020. Now CNSA confirms progress of their most ambitious space program.
Chinese space program is well known from its spectacular success. After being overshadowed by Soviet and American space programs, Chinese development rapidly showed potential of Chinese science and industry. First satellite launched in 1970 called Dongfanghong I was heaviest from all first satellites launched by other countries. Commercial success of Long March rocket series preceded by success of Chinese ICBMs, gave USA and USSR clear sign that China will become an important force on space industry. But still in the end of eighties, when both USA and USSR were able to lift men into space and bring them safely back using spaceships or shuttles, China was not able to send man into a space orbit. In 1992 Chinese manned space program begun. In 1999 first Chinese spacship was launched and placed on orbit. In 2003, after four years of trials, in mission called Shenzhou 5, China sent man into space. In this way China became third country in the world with successful manned space flight program. In spite of great success it was clear sign that Chinese industry is able to become significant competitor of American or Russian. But announcements from 2004 about Chinese plans of Moon landing in 2020 and developing own space station still sounded like wishful thinking. In 2005 it was given to public that CNSA is going to hold plans with man landing and will concentrate on sending unmanned spacecrafts capable to return on Earth from the moon. In 2010 CNSA announced that manned mission to the moon is still in develop and is planned for 2025. It sounded to be possible because China was developing technology allowing returning from the Moon. Planned Chang'e 5 mission (scheduled on 2017) objective, was to bring back probe of Moon rocks with rover back on Earth. But CNSA was not forgetting about Mars. CNSA was just considering Moon landing and developing program of space station as a phase on the Chinese way to Mars mission. In 2007 agreement between head of CNSA, Sun Laiyan and chief of Russian Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov was signed ("Cooperative Agreement between the China National Space Administration and the Russian Space Agency on joint Chinese-Russian exploration of Mars"). At that moment it confirmed Russia and China again working together on their space programs (agreement from 1994 referred to selling Soyuz spaceship technology to China). Both countries had not any modern experience with Mars exploration program based on landing rover (Russia sent last Mars probe in seventies). Unfortunately first mission under Chinese-Russian program in 2011 was failure. Yinghuo-1 spacecraft could not separate from inoperative Russian Fobos-Grunt probe and burned in atmosphere after reentry in January 2012 (Russians stated that next attempt of sending Fobos-Grunt is planned for 2020). After that it became clear that successful Mars mission is not as close as CNSA wanted. In 2014 on Zhuhai Airshow, CNSA demonstrated model of Mars rover. It became clear that Chinese Mars program will not be based mainly on cooperation with Russia, but it will be expanded independently by the CNSA. On Tuesday, at ongoing China International Industry Fair, CNSA showed scaled model of Mars lander and rover and confirm that 2020 is possible to meet the deadline. It is obviously that after NASA announced in September that had found water on Mars, China would like to recall their position is Mars race. They did it well, because Mars-Grunt, Russian Mars return mission will not be finished until 2026, what gives China chance to take second place after USA in Mars race.
Unfortunately it is not sure that CNSA will be able to combine experiences with Moon missions with new technologies. Before Pathfinder mission in 1997, NASA had been trying many times with sending Mars probes. First Mariner-4 probe flown close Mars in 1964, six years before first launch of Chinese satellite. In 2003 Chinese reached point left by Russians and Americans behind about forty years ago. To sum up: manned missions and Moon programs were great success of CNSA. There were no disasters and no mistakes. After first manned flight, CNSA proved that they have capability to perform first spacewalk (2008), first docking to ISS (2013) and create Tiangong (2011) - first Chinese space station. Moon program was also significant success. Chang'e 3 lander with Yutu rover was first object which soft landed on the Moon since Soviet Luna 24 in 1976. But still it is nothing more than repeating steps of Russians and Americans. Of course new Chinese Mars rover is probably technically advanced and impressive, but it is not enough to say that China raised the bar.