China unveils plans to send spacecraft to Jupiter and Uranus

I2,300 years ago, the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan wrote the poem “Tianwen” or “Questions of Heaven”. Only now has China’s Tianwen spacecraft begun flying missions designed to find some celestial answers. And like Space.com reportsthese missions become increasingly ambitious.

In 2020, Tianwen 1 spacecraft was launched to Mars carrying the Zhurong rover, which successfully landed on the Red Planet’s surface in May 2021. China has already announced plans to launch Tianwen 2 on a sample return mission to a near-Earth asteroid Kamo’oalewa in 2025 and 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 two-planet mission to Tianwen 4 as early as 2030. The mission would involve two spacecraft, the larger of which would be directed to Jupiter and will enter orbit around the Jovian moon Callisto. A second, smaller spacecraft will then fly to Uranus.

Nine NASA spacecraft have flown or orbited Jupiter, although no one has ever orbited any of its moons. Only one spacecraft, that of NASA Voyager 2once scouted Uranus, flying past the planet in 1986. Both Chinese spacecraft could also make an asteroid flyby on its way to the outer solar system, although that possibility has yet to be decided.

“Science objectives are still being considered,” Wang Qiong of the China National Space Administration told Space.com. Beijing started the space game late – especially compared to the US and the old Soviet Union. But now he is making up for lost time decisively.

This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can register here.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger c [email protected].

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