China's ardor for a red planet

Updated: 2014-12-08 10:40


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BEIJING - The day after Orion, NASA's new spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to Mars, made its first test flight, a group of Chinese kids created their own Mars rover at Beijing Planetarium.


Li Manting, 10, draws a "rover train." "I hope it will carry tourists from earth," she says.

Her classmate Shi Zekai equips his rover with advanced weaponry, "in case it is threatened by aliens." He give his rover a cool name: "Rock Crusher."

Li and Shi are students at Lantian Fengyuan School, a private school open to migrant workers' children. They and 35 schoolmates are at the planetarium to watch 3D space films, listen to space scientists and, of course, create their own rovers.

The event is hosted by China Features, a leading feature story provider, and the New Citizen Program, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the learning environment for migrant children.

According to report by the All-China Women's Federation, China's migrant workers in 2013 had more than 35 million children and the numbers are increasing. These children, whose parents are mostly from rural areas, usually have limited access to the fun side of science, says Lin Zhaoxing, secretary-general of New Citizen.

"We hope that this opens the door for them to learn more about Mars, the universe and the space industry," says Zhu Jin, curator of the planetarium.

Jia Yang, the deputy chief designer of "Yutu," China's first lunar rover, tells the children how a rover is designed, then stands back to watch as the children embellish it with their own creativity.

Li Mingzhen, 10, adds another camera "to take a selfie when landing on Mars." Yang Yang, 9, gives it a magnetic arm to attract minerals.

Huang Jinkai, 11, draws a sprinkler on the bottom of his rover and explains that "water will make the tough stones soft, which protects the wheel of the rover." He also adds a "take off button, " hoping that it will fly and get a birds-eye view of the Martian surface, except there are no birds on Mars.

Jia Yang believes his talk must have sown the seeds of space science in some children's hearts. He recalls that, "When I was eight years old, I read a book on the solar system and my interest in space began."


One year after putting Yutu on the moon, Mars has come over the horizon as the next destination.

Though China has no official plan for a Mars probe, Ouyang Ziyuan of China's lunar mission, let it slip that there are plans to land a rover on Mars around 2020.

Li Zhongbao, vice head of the China Academy of Space Technology, believes the plan is a reasonable one. Last month, a prototype of the Mars rover went on display at Airshow China 2014. While the rover's final look and functions are yet to be decided, the public has shown great enthusiasm for the Mars rover, including its name, shape and functions. The current preferred nickname is "Yutu's little brother."

More than 10 million people have followed an activity on the China Features website ( and Sina Weibo to name the rover. Among the suggestions, red rabbit, red bird, phoenix, and firefly are the most popular.

Wang Yijun, 9, from Beijing plumped for "Firefly" because, "it's tiny but could light up the dark sky."

Zhou Xiaosi from Xi'an chose "Yaowang," meaning "looking into the distance."

"The red planet and the earth look at each other from a long way. Human beings have been sending their best wishes to the twinkling star since ancient times," he said.

People have plenty of suggestions as to how the rover should look: it should be as cute as robot Walle; as cool as a Transformer; strong as Iron Man; and certainly much tougher than "Yutu." There are animals aplenty -- butterfly, beetle, spider, centipede, crab, turtle, octopus, even starfish. Most people vote red, gold and silver as its colors. Red and gold are big in China.


"A handsome rover could make a wonderful film star," Zhao Chen admitted, "but no matter what it looks like, we'll all love it!"

As to its functions, suggestions vary between the speculative and the outlandish: The Mars rover should be like a car and transform to a robot when navigating difficult terrain; The rover should be able to play music, which could be transmitted through the planet's atmosphere; The rover should... Some netizens give slightly more "professional" advice.

A windshield wiper could clean sand from its solar panel and a self-rescue mechanism is needed to prevent it from sinking into soft sand, Zhou Xiaosi says.

Song Yuhao hopes the rover will carry a balloon which, when filled with hydrogen, will take the rover flying.

"Every part of the rover should be able to work on its own, in case some malfunction affects the whole machine," Zhu Yunting says. Many hope the rover's battery could be recharged not only by solar power, but also wind or nuclear power.

"Our current concept has six wheels, like Yutu, but will be larger and better at dealing with obstacles," says Jia Yang. "Mars is littered with large rocks like the Gobi Desert. Dust storms will significantly lower usefulness of the solar battery. We must improve its adaptability to complex terrain."

Mars is humanity's first option for space migration. It needs a long period of devoted work, says Liu Cixin, a Chinese science fiction writer noted for "The Three-Body Problem."

"The longing for a new world flows in everyone's blood. It is the essence of being human," he adds.