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China looking to Mars as coronavirus pandemic spreads

Shawn M. Carter

As the coronavirus pandemic continues and ripple effects hit every part of the world, a team of researchers in China, where the virus originated, is looking toward Mars and Chinese space officials want to launch in July.

The launch is part of a long-planned mission to probe the Red Planet and it will include an orbiter, a lander and a rover.

In what would be the country’s first-ever trip to Mars, according to a recent report in Nature, the project will include several cameras, subsurface radar imagers and particle analyzers to study the planet’s foreign surfaces, geology and things its like water-ice distribution.

And despite the more than 190,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide, including fewer than 81,000 in China resulting in roughly 3,200 deaths, officials want to push forward with the mission.

“The launch is so important politically that they will make it happen,” Raymond Arvidson, a planetary geologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, told Nature.

The centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party lands in 2021, and Wang Chi, a space physicist and director-general of the National Space Science Center in Beijing said in the report that a successful launch would be “100-year anniversary gift.”

Researchers on the mission are taking steps to protect themselves, and Wang, who is in charge of the project’s scientific payloads, said the outbreak hasn’t yet caused delays.

To scale back physical contact between employees the NSSC introduced a flexible work policy, allowing engineers and other staffers to come into the office only in the mornings or the afternoons. And researchers who need to visit the center for essential project testing can stay in guest rooms without quarantining themselves for the required two weeks.

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As China’s mission presses on, so do other countries’. NASA is in the process of deploying a rover named Perseverance, and the United Arab Emirates will send a probe called Hope.

Two other international teams are planning Mars launches in July.

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The European and Russian space agencies were also planning to probe the planet but announced recently the projects would be delayed two years in part due to the pandemic.

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The Harvard Business Review estimates that the private space market is already worth an estimated $325 billion, and could hit $1 trillion in a decade.

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