The China National Space Administration, the Chinese equivalent of NASA, is working to send a probe to the Red Planet, Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the agency, told reporters Monday.
“China will carry out its first-ever exploration mission to Mars around 2020,” he said.
China’s robotic spacecraft Chang’e-4 landed on the far side of the moon earlier this month, a first in the human history of space exploration. On Friday, it beamed back pictures of the probe’s lander and the rover taking photos of each other.
The space agency plans to launch a Chang’e-5 mission at the end of the year with the goal of collecting samples from the near side of the moon, Wu said. They would be the first samples retrieved since 1976.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said repeatedly that he has “lofty ambitions” to turn China into a space power.
China is building its own space station, called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, which is expected to be operational in 2022. But the agency is still deciding whether to send astronauts to the moon, Wu said Monday.
The Chang’e-4 mission — Chang’e is a Chinese moon goddess — is continuing.
The 1.3-ton lander, which made a soft landing on the moon earlier this month, put potato seeds and silkworm eggs, housed in a chamber and fed natural light and nutrition, on the moon.
It also deployed a small rover called Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit-2, to explore the surrounding lunar terrain, which is believed to be older than that on the near side.
“All these are first-time breakthroughs for humankind,” Wu said at a news conference Monday. “They are bound to make significant impacts on both China and the world.”
A German-developed instrument on the lander will measure radiation levels and collect data that could be useful in planning human missions to the far side of the moon.
China said it has shared data with NASA about the mission to the far side of the moon.
That claim could not be immediately substantiated, but it could raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill because NASA and the Chinese agency are prohibited from cooperating without congressional approval.
The 2011 Wolf Amendment, motivated by security concerns, bans NASA scientists from working with Chinese citizens affiliated with a Chinese state enterprise or entity.
At an astronautical conference in Germany last year, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he talked to his Chinese counterpart about expanding cooperation.
“We do cooperate in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean our interests are always aligned,” he said, according to the Space News website. “Some of these decisions are going to be made above the pay grade of the NASA administrator.”
It was in the U.S. interest to cooperate, he said, adding that China’s space agency was doing “some amazing scientific experiments.”
“We can share data and collaborate that way so that each country can learn more about science,” he said.
The escalating trade war has dimmed the prospect of cooperation between NASA and its Chinese counterpart. In response, U.S. and Chinese scientists have focused on technical dialogues and data sharing between nongovernmental institutions.
“Expanded international cooperation is the wish of all scientists,” Wu said Monday. “It takes joining of forces among the world’s big space powers to really make a difference in human space exploration.”