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China unveils designs for orbiter, lander and rover for its first unmanned mission to Mars

China has given the first detailed look at the technology of its Mars mission, which it hopes to launch in 2020.

Images depicting the orbiter, lander and rover were released to the public on Tuesday, four months after the mission was announced, according to China National Radio.

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The goal is to study the planet’s features, including its soil, environment, atmosphere and the interaction of any water and ice the probe found, Zhang Rongqiao, the chief designer, was quoted as saying at a press conference.

China has made rapid strides in recent decades towards becoming a superpower in space exploration. It put the Chang’e 3 lander on the moon three years ago and deployed the Jade Rabbit rover, but its three-month mission was quickly cut short when the vehicle suffered mechanical problems.

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Zhang acknowledged the Mars mission posed “greater difficulties and sophistication”.

One challenge is obtaining enough solar power for the rover given the planet’s atmosphere contains gases that can weaken the sun’s rays.

Scientists would also have to solve the technical challenges of entry through Mars’ atmosphere, landing and long-distance communication with earth, Zhang said.

The launch is scheduled for 2020 and the craft is expected to reach the Red Planet by 2021, according to the national radio station’s website.

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Images displayed at Tuesday’s press conference showed the rover had six wheels and is powered by four solar panels, two more than on the vehicle sent to the moon.

The rover weighs about 200 kg and is designed to operate for three Martian months, according to Sun Zezhou, the vehicle’s chief designer.

The probe will carry 13 payloads including a remote sensing camera and a ground penetrating radar which can be used to study the soil, environment and atmosphere of Mars.

It can also study the distribution of water and ice and the planet’s inner structure.

The Mars lander will separate from the orbiter after a journey of about seven months and touch down in a low latitude area in the northern hemisphere of Mars where the rover will explore the surface.

Chinese scientists have completed key technologies for the Mars probe and will soon start engineering development, the state-run news agency Xinhua said.

A public competition to pick the name and logo for the mission was also launched on Tuesday.

Liu Jizhong, the director of the lunar exploration programme and space engineering centre under the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, said the Mars probe would be “the pride of all Chinese nationals”, and he hoped that the name and logo competition would find a design that “can catch the spirit of the times and reflect national image”.

China put a Mars probe on board a Russian spacecraft five years ago, but a malfunction stranded the mission’s two probes in earth orbit and they later disintegrated upon re-entry.