It was 2,300 years ago that the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan wrote the poem “Tianwen,” or “Heavenly Questions.” It is only now that China’s Tianwen spacecraft have begun flying missions designed to come up with some heavenly answers. And as Space.com reports, those missions are becoming increasingly ambitious.
In 2020, the Tianwen 1 spacecraft was launched to Mars, carrying the Zhurong rover, which successfully landed on the surface of the Red Planet in May 2021. Already, China has announced plans to launch Tianwen 2 on a sample return mission to the near-Earth asteroid Kamo’oalewa in 2025, and to follow that with Tianwen 3, flying its own sample return mission to Mars in 2028.
But just this week, at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris, China went even further, unveiling plans for an ambitious dual-planet mission for Tianwen 4 as early as 2030. The mission would include two spacecraft, the larger of which would be targeted for Jupiter and would enter orbit around the Jovian moon Callisto. A second, smaller spacecraft, would then fly onto Uranus.
Nine NASA spacecraft have either flown by or orbited Jupiter, though none has ever orbited any of its moons. Only one spacecraft, NASA’s Voyager 2, has ever reconnoitered Uranus, flying by the planet in 1986. Both Chinese spacecraft could also make an asteroid flyby on their way to the outer solar system, though that possibility has yet to be decided upon.
“The scientific goals are still under consideration,” Wang Qiong of the China National Space Administration told Space.com. Beijing came to the space game late—especially compared to the U.S. and the old Soviet Union. But it is decidedly making up for that lost time now.
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