HELSINKI — China’s main space contractor has conducted several successful high-altitude parachute deployment tests as part of plans to collect asteroid samples and deliver them safely to Earth.

The Academy of Aerospace Solid Propulsion Technology (AASPT) under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) recently carried out a launch test in the Gobi Desert in Northwest China, CASC announced June 23.

The test payload also carried a sample return device developed by the Beijing Institute of Space Machinery and Electronics (BISME) under the China Academy Of Space Technology (CAST), another major CASC subsidiary. 

The tests are for the Tianwen-2 asteroid sample return and comet rendezvous mission which is currently scheduled to lift off on a Long March 3B rocket in May 2025. 

The mission will target the near-Earth asteroid 469219 Kamoʻoalewa, collecting samples and returning to Earth around 2.5 years after launch. 

The parachute will be used to slow the descent of a return capsule carrying a sample container after reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. 

CASC has developed parachutes for reenteries for its human spaceflight program, the Tianwen-1 Mars rover landing, and for the 2020 Chang’e-5 and upcoming Chang’e-6 lunar sample return missions. The country is also working on an unprecedented Mars sample return mission

Kamoʻoalewa is a quasi-satellite of Earth and roughly 40-100 meters in diameter. It is possibly a chunk of the moon blasted into space following an impact event. 

Tianwen-2 will use two techniques to sample the asteroid. These will be the touch-and-go approach used by both NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and JAXA’s Hayabusa2, and an anchor-and-attach system featuring drills at the tips of landing legs. 

After delivering samples to Earth the spacecraft will use the approach to the planet for a gravitational slingshot maneuver to send it on its way to the main-belt comet 311P/PANSTARRS. The comet orbits between 1.94 and 2.44 astronomical units from the Sun and the spacecraft is expected to rendezvous with the body in the mid-2030s.

China performed a similar maneuver in 2020 when delivering lunar samples to Earth with Chang’e-5. The service module for that mission used the return to Earth as flyby to embark on an extended mission to Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1.

CASC noted the construction of the Tianwen-2 spacecraft as a key goal in its 2023 plans, along with building the Chang’e-7 lunar south pole landing mission spacecraft. 

The Tianwen-2 spacecraft will carry a pair of circular, fan-like solar arrays to generate energy, similar in appearance to those of NASA’s Lucy mission spacecraft. It will also carry eight payloads for its science goals.

China’s Tianwen missions are the country’s flagship deep space exploration missions. Tianwen-1 saw an orbiter and rover reach Mars in 2021, while Tianwen-3 will aim to collect samples from the Red Planet. Tianwen-4 will target the Jupiter system with a separate Uranus flyby.

The latter mission is scheduled to launch around 2030.The Chinese Academy of Sciences is meanwhile considering a proposal to collect samples from E-type asteroid 1989 ML. China is also planning an asteroid deflection test for 2025.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...