China's First Mars Mission Prepares to Explore the Red Planet

China's first Mars exploration probe, Yinghuo-1, will be launched in early November along with Russia's Fobos-Grunt sample return spacecraft. The mission to Earth's second-nearest planetary neighbor is just the latest great leap forward – or should we say, outward – for the ambitious Chinese space program.

Yinghuo-1 is one half of a joint Chinese-Russian Mars-exploration space mission, one of the first fruits of the landmark "Cooperative Agreement between the China National Space Administration and the Russian Space Agency on joint Chinese-Russian exploration of Mars" (whew!) signed by the heads of both nation's space agencies in March of 2007.

Though a series of technical challenges have delayed the mission for about 2 years, these issues have finally been put to rest and on October 17, 2011, the Yinghuo-1 probe was delivered to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It's now on schedule to be launched (along with the Russian Fobos-Grunt sample return spacecraft) in early November.

Ukraine will also participate in the mission, albeit only its beginning: the main rocket booster is a Ukrainian-made Zenit rocket (right) topped with a Russian Fregat upper stage.

The spotlight is squarely on China, however. As this is the first Chinese mission to Mars, millions of hopeful eyes will be on Yinghuo-1 through the course of its 2-year scientific mission. Once it successfully achieves orbit around Mars, the 115kg (250lb) probe will go to work unlocking the Red Planet's secrets. Specific targets for Yinghuo-1's scrutiny include the Martian magnetic field, ionosphere, atmosphere and surface features.

Numbered among Yinghuo-1's impressive bevy of onboard instrumentation are an electron analyzer, an ion analyzer, a mass spectrometer, a radio-occultation sounder, and an advanced optical imaging package consisting of 2 cameras capable of resolving surface features as small as 200m (about 650ft) across. The probe will also carry a flux capacitor, er, fluxgate magnetometer. Yinghuo-1 is going to Mars, not Hill Valley CA... or so we're told. (via Xinhuanet, main image via RadioAlgerie)