China's heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket blasts off from its launch centre in Wenchang

China's Long March 5 rocket will carry its Mars probe into space.Credit: AFP/Getty

China’s first journey to Mars is one of the most anticipated space missions of the year. But with parts of the country in some form of lockdown because of the coronavirus, the mission teams have had to find creative ways to continue their work.

Researchers involved in the mission remain tight-lipped about its key aspects, but several reports from Chinese state media say that the outbreak will not affect the July launch — the only window for another two years.

“The launch is so important politically that they will make it happen,” says Raymond Arvidson, a planetary geologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who has been involved with several US Mars missions.

The centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party is in 2021, and a successful launch will be a “100-year anniversary gift”, says Wang Chi, a space physicist and director general of the National Space Science Center (NSSC) in Beijing, who is in charge of the scientific payloads involved in the mission.

Two other international teams are planning Mars launches in July. NASA plans to deploy a rover named Perseverance, and the United Arab Emirates will send a probe called Hope. The European and Russian space agencies were planning to send a probe to Mars this year, but announced on Thursday that the launch will be delayed by two years so they can finish important tests, and partly because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On track

China’s probe, called Huoxing, will include an orbiter, a lander and a rover — the first Mars probe to include all three. The project will have 13 scientific payloads, including several cameras, subsurface radar imagers and particle analyzers, as well as a magnetometer and magnetic-field detector. The mission’s scientific goals include studying the Martian morphology, geology, soil and water–ice distribution.

Wang says the coronavirus outbreak has affected the way his team works, but has not yet caused delays.

Several days ago, the team had to move six scientific payloads for the orbiter from Beijing to Shanghai, where they will be assembled. Instead of risking the team members getting infected on a plane or high-speed train, 3 people drove the 6 payloads in a car — a journey that took more than 12 hours.

To limit physical contact between employees, the NSSC has introduced a flexible work policy that allows researchers and engineers to come into the office only in the mornings or the afternoons. Basic scientists can work from home. “We just want to reduce the population in the centre,” says Wang.

Travel has been minimized, but researchers who need to visit the NSSC for essential project testing can get approval to stay at the centre’s guest rooms without quarantining themselves for the required two weeks. “Because this is a big national project, usually the local government office gives us a green light,” says Wang.

More than 20 research teams and some 70 scientists across China are involved in the development of the craft’s instruments and scientific investigations, says Wang. To ensure communication between these teams during the coronavirus outbreak, technical evaluations have been done through virtual meetings, he says.

Another impact of the outbreak is that no guests will be allowed to attend the launch in July, says Wang. At the late 2018 launch event for China’s lunar probe, Chang’e-4, the teams responsible for the payloads invited some 100 guests, including international collaborators.

Keen observers can probably watch the rocket launch from a nearby beach in Wenchang city on the southern island of Hainan, says Alian Wang, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.