January 5, 2009

China-Russia Mars mission set for takeoff

The first joint Chinese-Russian mission to Mars is set to take off in October and reach the red planet in August 2010, an exploration project designer said.

A Russian Zenit rocket will launch a Chinese Yinghuo-1 satellite and a Russian Phobos-Grunt unmanned lander, Chen Changya, chief designer of the China-Russia Mars exploration project, told Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po newspaper.

Phobos-Grunt is expected to study Mars from orbit, including its atmosphere and dust storms, plasma and radiation, before landing on Phobos, one of Mars' two small moons.

Yinghuo-1, which means Firefly-1, will explore the Martian environment and carry out research into how surface water on the planet disappeared, Chen said.

A challenge for Yinghuo-1 during the yearlong mission will be seven periods of 8.8 hours in darkness, when the sun will be obscured by the red planet and the satellite will not receive solar energy, Chen said.

During those times, Yinghuo-1 will go into sleeping status and restart itself after getting through each shadow.

Researchers are still looking at ways to help the satellite sustain extremely low temperatures, plunging to minus 200 degrees Celsius, or about minus 328 degree Fahrenheit, in the shadows, Chen said.

Meanwhile, China's second unmanned moon probe, Chang'e-2, is likely to be launched this year, a year ahead of schedule, the newspaper said.

Chang'e-2 will collect more detailed images and statistics of the moon's surface, the newspaper said.