China is considering ways to improve its space exploration capabilities, including a vehicle that looks similar to NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter.
The National Space Science Center (NSSC) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announced Wednesday that a prototype of a “Mars surface cruise drone” passed a final acceptance review on August 20.
The rotorcraft was one of three projects in the NSSC’s technology cultivation program. Bian Chunjiang of the NSSC led the vehicle project, which includes a micro spectrometer.
Although the concept could be considered for future Chinese Mars exploration, the NSSC has yet to identify a mission on which the drone could fly.
In February, China’s first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, was launched into orbit around the Red Planet. The successful landing of the roughly 240-kilogram, solar-powered Zhurong rover in May followed this achievement. China’s next Mars mission is currently scheduled to launch in the 2028 or 2030 launch windows as a sample return mission.
In June, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) released a report on the propulsion requirements for future, long-term crewed missions to Mars, including precursor robotic missions. The study identified favorable launch windows for both crewed and uncrewed missions, but did not provide a timeline for either.
NASA has recently confirmed the concept of flying a craft on Mars. The 1.8-kilogram Ingenuity helicopter was carried by the Perseverance rover when it landed on Mars in February. In April, the vehicle made the first powered flight by an aircraft on another world, and on Aug. 16, it completed its 12th and most recent flight, covering 450 meters in 169.5 seconds.
NASA is currently looking into larger, more capable rotorcraft concepts for future missions. The Dragonfly drone will be launched in 2027 and will arrive in 2034 on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The planetary science mission Dragonfly was chosen as a New Frontiers mission.
China’s desire to fly a plane through the thin Martian atmosphere is not new. For China’s 2020 Mars mission, a concept from the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology was considered. In addition to a rover, the ambitious proposal included three ground penetrators that would be released during descent and an aerostat that would operate for one week at an altitude of 1 to 5 kilometers. With a single landing, the goal would have been to obtain “three-dimensional, multi-layer, and multi-source information.”
Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering and Shenzhen Aerospace DFH HIT Satellite Ltd., both part of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), as well as Beihang University, are working on concept architectures for Mars exploration.
The first is a winged drone, which was chosen over a helicopter because of the challenges posed by the latter’s high rotation speed and requirements for an ultralight structure and high efficiency power system. Before pitching and deploying its wings, the drone would take off vertically from the surface of Mars.
The vehicle would have a range of tens of kilometers and would collect and analyze atmospheric and surface samples. It would also be able to travel through canyons and craters, which would otherwise be impossible to access.
A balloon concept with a tethered 2U CubeSat was also proposed by the group. The system would attempt to collect atmospheric samples at various altitudes for analysis, as well as return high-resolution imagery and other data.
An ejected deep space camera and a rover-deployed camera for a joint rover-landing platform photo were among the surprises aboard China’s Tianwen-1 mission.
With so many new and innovative concepts being developed, competition for a spot on future Chinese exploration missions is expected to be fierce.