China's Mars sample return mission seeks to collect samples from the Red Planet and return them to Earth in 2031, two years before a joint NASA-ESA mission.
According to SpaceNews, the goal date was stated in a Monday presentation by Sun Zezhou, principal designer of the Tianwen 1 Mars orbiter and rover mission, which arrived on the Red Planet in February 2021.
Based on Zezhou's presentation, which was reportedly given at a Nanjing University seminar, China is planning a two-launch mission with liftoff in late 2028 and a sample return to Earth in July 2031.
"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 said.
NASA recently solicited public feedback on its joint sample return plans, following the agency's decision to develop a second Mars lander due to the mission's mass requirements. The addition of a second lander pushes the arrival of Mars samples on Earth from 2031 to 2033.
The NASA-ESA campaign will transport samples collected by NASA's Perseverance rover, which has been exploring the 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) Jezero Crater since February 2021. The samples will be collected by a European-built "fetch" rover and placed aboard an American-built Mars ascent vehicle (MAV). The sample container will be launched into Mars orbit by the MAV and captured by a European Earth return orbiter.
China has prior experience delivering samples from the moon. In December 2020, China's Chang'e 5 mission landed on the moon and returned to Earth the first lunar samples since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976.
The country's ambition to carry out the unprecedented mission has previously been stated, and it is included in the China National Space Administration's development plans for 2021-2025.
Completing "key technological research on Mars sampling and return" was mentioned as a goal for the same time period in a January government space white paper.
Both the Tianwen 1 orbiter and the Zhurong are still operational. In May of this year, the rover went into hibernation to try to survive the harsh Red Planet winter.
Two missions will precede the sample return. Tianwen-1, the country's first independent interplanetary mission, launched in July 2020, sending an orbiter and rover to Mars.
Tianwen-2 will be a near-Earth asteroid sampling mission that will also make a stop at the main-belt comet. Current plans call for a 2025 launch.