China reveals plans to send spacecraft to Jupiter and Uranus

IIt 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 provide some celestial answers. And as Space.com reports, those missions are getting more and more ambitious.

In 2020, the Tianwen 1 spacecraft was launched to Mars with 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 test return mission to the near – Earth asteroid Kamo’oalewa in 2025, and to follow it with Tianwen 3 flying its own test return mission to Mars in 2028.

But just this week, at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris, China went even further, revealing plans for an ambitious dual-planet mission for Tianwen 4 as early as 2030. The mission will include two spacecraft, the larger of which will target Jupiter and would orbit the Jovian moon Callisto. A second, smaller spacecraft would then fly into Uranus.

Nine NASA spacecraft have either flown by or orbited Jupiter, although none have ever orbited any of its moons. Only one spacecraft, NASA’s Voyager 2, has ever reconnoitered Uranus, flying past the planet in 1986. Both Chinese spacecraft could also fly past an asteroid on its way to the outer solar system, though that possibility has yet to be decided.

“The scientific goals are still under consideration,” Wang Qiong of the China National Space Administration told Space.com. Beijing was late to the space game – especially compared to the US and the old Soviet Union. But it is making up for lost time now.

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

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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