The Chinese government has announced plans to send a robotic spacecraft, called Tianwen 2, to collect samples from an asteroid known as 2016 HO3. The mission aims to send a probe consisting of an orbiter and a reentry module to scoop dust from the asteroid’s surface and return it to Earth. The probe will then continue its scientific exploration tasks by flying towards a main-belt comet named 311P. The China National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center announced the mission, noting that it will invite scientists from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan to attend a workshop in April to discuss the project’s basic plan, scientific goals, and operational patterns.
The Tianwen 2 mission follows China’s first independent interplanetary exploration, the Tianwen 1 mission, which successfully deployed a rover named Zhurong on Mars in May 2021. Zhurong has since traveled nearly 2,000 meters on the Red Planet and collected a great deal of raw data.
The decision to send a robotic spacecraft to collect samples from an asteroid demonstrates China’s continued commitment to advancing its space program. The mission also follows China’s successful lunar exploration program, which has included landing the Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the moon in 2019 and returning lunar samples to Earth in December of the same year.
The 2016 HO3 asteroid is known as a “quasi-satellite,” as it is the smallest and closest celestial body to Earth. Although it is too distant to be considered a true satellite of Earth, it is a constant companion of the planet, making it an ideal target for scientific exploration. NASA experts have described it as the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion.
The mission to collect samples from the 2016 HO3 asteroid is part of a broader effort by China to establish itself as a leading space-faring nation. The country has invested heavily in its space program in recent years, with the aim of developing advanced technologies and capabilities for use in national defense, scientific research, and commercial activities.