China’s first trip to Mars is one of the most awaited space missions of the year. But with parts of the country in some kind of lockdown because of the coronavirus, the mission teams have had to find innovative ways to continue their work.
Researchers involved in the mission remain tongue-tied about its key aspects, but numerous reports from Chinese state media say that the epidemic will not affect the July launch — the only window for other two years.
“The launch is so significant politically that they will make it happen,” says Raymond Arvidson, a planetary geologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who has been engaged with several US Mars missions.
The anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party is in 2021, and a victorious launch will be a “100-year anniversary gift”, says Wang Chi, a space physicist and director general of the National Space Science Center (NSSC) in Beijing, who is directing the scientific payloads involved in the mission.
Two other global teams are planning Mars launches in July. NASA plans to set up a rover named Perseverance, and the United Arab Emirates will send a probe known as Hope. The Russian and European space agencies were planning to send a probe to Mars this year, but stated on Thursday that the launch will be delayed by two years so they can finish vital tests, and partially because of the coronavirus epidemic.
China’s probe, called Huoxing, will include a lander, an orbiter and a rover — the first Mars probe to involve all three. The project will have 13 scientific payloads, including numerous cameras, subsurface radar imagers and particle analyzers, alongside a magnetometer and magnetic-field detector. The mission’s scientific aims include studying the Martian morphology, soil, geology and water–ice distribution.
Wang says the coronavirus outbreak has influenced the way his team works, but has not still caused delays.
Some days ago, the team had to transfer six scientific payloads for the orbiter from Beijing to Shanghai, where they will be gathered. Rather than risking the team members getting infected on a high-speed train or plane, 3 people drove the 6 payloads in a car — a trip that took more than 12 hours.
To restrict physical contact between employees, the NSSC has introduced an accommodating work policy that allows engineers and researchers to come into the office only in the mornings or the afternoons. Fundamental scientists can work from home. “We just want to lessen the population in the centre,” says Wang.
Travel has been reduced, but researchers who need to visit the NSSC for vital project testing can get support to stay at the centre’s guest rooms without quarantining themselves for the needed two weeks. “Because this is a big national venture, usually the local government office gives us a green light,” says Wang.
Over 20 research teams and around 70 scientists across China are included in the development of the craft’s instruments and scientific investigations, says Wang. To make sure communication between these teams during the coronavirus outbreak, technical assessments have been done via virtual meetings, he says.
Another effect of the outbreak is that no guests will be permitted to attend the launch in July, says Wang. At the late 2018 launch event for China’s lunar probe, Chang’e-4, the teams accountable for the payloads invited about 100 guests, including international collaborators.
Eager observers can possibly watch the rocket launch from a near beach in Wenchang city on the southern island of Hainan, says Alian Wang, a planetary researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.