The progress of China’s Mars exploration

With the rapid development of deep space exploration technology, the exploration of Mars has become the target of the space power. Is there life on Mars? Can “Mars immigrant” come true? Can humans build “a second homeland” on Mars? What role will strong AI play in the construction of “Mars base”? And what’s the progress of China’s Mars exploration program?

At the 2017 Shanghai book fair, Ziyuan Ouyang, the academician of Chinese Academy of Sciences, the first chief scientist of China’s moon exploration project, and editor-in-chief of the General Mars Science, received an exclusive interview with Xinhua News Agency.

Can a blue dream come true on the red planet?

“The moon is the only natural satellite of the earth. Our detection and landing on the moon just cross the threshold and we have never been able to reach the wider solar system.” Ouyang said. The accumulation of lunar exploration technology and existing research on Mars have given humans the ability to “leave our own cradle”.

In the solar system, Venus and Mars are the two planets closest to earth. Each country’s space agency has focused on Mars exploration.

Ouyang believes that Mars is the planet that resembles earth most:

First, humans have found the evidence of water on Mars. Dry waterways, lakes, ocean basins in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and precipitous landslides caused by groundwater that flew out after the landslide. New research shows that water on Mars may be hidden underground.

Second, Chinese scientist Lin Yang’s team studied meteorite carbon isotope on Mars study, which believes that there may be life in Mars before.

Third, the Mars has four seasons, and the time of one day on the Mars is close to that of the earth.

Compared with the earth, however, the natural environment of Mars is very harsh: the surface of Mars is very dry; the annual average temperature is minus 60 degrees Celsius; the air is thin and atmospheric pressure is only one percent of the earth. “It may take a long time to transform Mars into a habitable planet”, Ouyang said.

According to the introduction, the transformation of Mars may be realized one day, and mankind has proposed some preliminary ideas and action plans to transform Mars.

First, we should artificially increase the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of Mars, enhance the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere and raise its surface temperature, so that the drikold in the polar could sublimate and ice there could melt. And sublimation could increase the concentrations carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus could continue to enhance the atmosphere pressure of Mars;

Secondly, the melt of ice in the polar and groundwater discharge can guarantee the free flow of water in the equatorial region of Mars, which could be used for agricultural irrigation. Besides, we should introduce plants suitable the Mars, so as to produce oxygen, change the composition of the atmosphere, build ecological environment on Martian surface, and provide conditions for free walking on Mars. What’s more, we should establish the “Mars base” to carry out agriculture and animal husbandry, to self-support food and byproducts, to build industrial facilities of energy and raw materials, and to build infrastructure for human. Lastly, we could carry out Mars tourism or immigration.

There is plenty of red hematite in Martian soil. Due to the low air pressure on the surface and high wind speed, typhoon often appear on the surface and regional sandstorms sometimes cause red sandstorms on the globe, which makes the Mars look like the red planet. The study has found that large dried-up basin ever existed in the northern hemisphere of Mars. So, there were rivers and lakes long time ago, but then for some reason, some water evaporated to space and others went underground.


The Mars surface by Mars Pathfinder. Gray rocks are covered by red and brown dust (from General Mars Science edited by Ouyang)

“By transforming Mars, we’re going to bring groundwater out and to make Mars a vibrant blue planet like earth.” Ouyang said.

What kind of robot can build Mars base?

In Ouyang’s view, it could be robots based on strong AI that would play a substantial role in human migration to Mars.

AI has been widely used in lunar exploration. China’s lunar lander took more than 4,700 photos during its soft landing on the moon. By analyzing these photos, the lander independently chose the area where it could land safely. Ouyang said, “the surface of the moon is full of bumps and hollows. There are tens of thousands of impact craters nearby the landing zone. It would take some time to send pictures back to earth and wait for the ground command back to the lunar rover, so we have to rely on AI.”

An impact crater on Mars whose diameter is 20.8 km (from General Mars Science edited by Ouyang)

Ouyang believes that the application of AI in deep space exploration is still in the phase of weak AI based on computer vision, speech recognition, natural language processing and machine learning. In the process of transforming Mars and building Mars base, the strong AI robot will be a very powerful force.

Because of the distance, it takes 15 to 20 minutes for the Mars probe to exchange with earth. But if the Mars probe is equipped with strong AI technology, robots could help astronauts complete a series of operations, and experiments. And through preliminary exploration, robots could find the most valuable observation points and assist astronauts to make decisions.

In the early days of transforming the Mars, humans would build a closed “Mars base”. Ouyang said, ” the air pressure on surface is low and it is quite cold. People need to wear heavy space suit for work, which is a serious problem for our respiration, action and stamina. Thus, we need to rely on the strong AI robots to complete complex tasks, such as raw materials manufacturing, equipment conveying, base construction, environmental control of closed cabin.”

The exploration plans of China differ from US

According to Ouyang, in China, the feasibility study Mars exploration was nearly carried out in sync with lunar exploration. China’s first Mars exploration mission, which was officially approved in April 2016, aims to have orbiter to orbit and detect the Mars and to have Mars rover to conduct patrol detection and soft landing in 2020. The U.S. Mars exploration program uses the Curiosity to move the lab with high-precision instruments to Mars. China’s Mars exploration program is a collaborative effort between the Mars orbiter and the rover.

Ouyang explains the meaning of “collaboration between heaven and earth”. It refers to that the Mars orbiter orbits the Mars in “heaven”. Through remote sensing detection, the orbiter makes comprehensive investigation on the Mar’s surface and atmosphere, including the atmosphere components and structure, global topography, soil distribution, surface composition, rock types, geological structure, internal structure, groundwater distribution, environment change of the surface, the magnetic field characteristics and others. While the rovers conduct patrol detection after soft landing. It may obtain data of meteorological characteristics of the landing zone, topography and geomorphology, geological structure, rock types of Mars surface, soil types, groundwater distribution and others, which provides basic data for the research of Mars resources and environment.

After the first Mars exploration, China will launch Mars probe that will drill sampling after landing on the surface. After collecting the sample of Mars core, the probe would then put the samples into capsule, take off from the Mars and back to the earth. Through systematic analysis, we could deepen our understanding of the origin and evolution history of Mars.

The lunar exploration project has enhanced the overall strength of China’s deep space exploration and has trained a number of experienced experts. China has now aimed at further and deeper space.


This article originally appeared in Xinhua News Agency and was translated by Pandaily.

Click here to read the original Chinese article.