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China doesn’t want to take the dust in the space exploration race and it pushes the accelerator button to catch up with NASA. China produces its own Mars helicopter. 

According to Space News’ original material A prototype of “Mars surface cruise drone” passed a final acceptance review on Aug. 20, the National Space Science Center (NSSC) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announced Wednesday.

The rotorcraft was one of three projects in a technology cultivation program promoted by the NSSC. The vehicle project was led by Bian Chunjiang of the NSSC and features a micro spectrometer. 

In perspective, we will see this Mars vehicle in future Chinese Mars exploration but the NSSC didn’t reveal any evidence that the drone will fly during the mission.

The Mars surface cruise drone prototype developed by China’s NSSC.
The Mars surface cruise drone prototype developed by China’s NSSC. Image credit: NSSC/CAS

China’s first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, entered orbit around the Red Planet in February. The 240-kg solar-powere Zhurgon rover successfuly landed in May. China’s next Mars mission is currently listed as a sample return mission, launching in the 2028 or 2030 launch windows.

The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) in June demonstrated a study of propulsion needed for long-term crewed expeditions to Mars, including precursor robotic missions. However the study didn’t include the timeline for both crewed and uncrewed missions.

The space flying vehicle was earlier verified by NASA. The company successfully delivered the rotorcraft called The Perseverance on Mars in February. The rover had the 1.8-kg Ingenuity helicopter on board. The vehicle made the first powered flight by an aircraft on another world in April and conducted its 12th and most recent flight Aug. 16, covering a horizontal distance of 450 meters across 169.5 seconds of flight.

NASA is now working on a concept to enlarge the size of the rotorcraft for future missions. In 2027 NASA will launch the Dragonfly drone to Titan which is the largest moon of Saturn. The drone will reach the moon in 2034. 

It is not a fresh idea for China to launch a mission to Mars. A concept from the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology was considered for the country’s 2020 Mars mission. As well as a rover, the ambitious proposal included three ground penetrators, to be released during descent, and an aerostat that would operate at an altitude of between 1 and 5 kilometers for one week. The objective would have been to obtain “three-dimensional, multi-layer and multi-source information” with one landing.

The first is a winged drone, a design chosen over a helicopter due to the challenges of high rotation speed and requirements for an ultralight structure and high efficiency power system posed by the latter. The drone would lift off vertically from the surface of Mars before pitching and deploying its wings. The vehicle would have a range of tens of kilometers, collecting and potentially analyzing atmosphere and surface samples. It would also be capable of entering otherwise prohibitive environments such as canyons and craters.

The group also put forward a balloon concept, carrying a tethered 2U CubeSat. The system would seek to take atmospheric samples at various altitudes for analysis, while also returning high-resolution imagery and other data.

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