HELSINKI — China should intensify its asteroid research and focus on sample return mission plans, according to scientists.

China’s future asteroid exploration should focus on “low-cost, high-frequency sample return missions, and emphasize strengthening coordination between missions,” according to a paper published recently in the Chinese Journal of Space Sciences. Establishing scientific design teams can also help better serve China’s future asteroid explorations.

Asteroid studies and exploration can bring new understanding to the solar system’s early stages and potentially the origins of life. This can also open the door for future space resource assessment and utilization and developing asteroid defense strategies. 

China is scheduled to launch its first asteroid sample return mission in 2025. The Tianwen-2 mission will target near-Earth object (NEO) 469219 Kamoʻoalewa, collecting samples and returning to Earth around 2.5 years after launch. The mission will notably harness both a touch-and-go technique 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. 

Its first planetary defense mission—a combined asteroid deflection and observation test visiting 2019 VL5, another NEO—will also launch next year.

However, the paper asserts that China’s progress on asteroid research is still in its nascent stages, particularly when compared with its lunar exploration achievements and ambitions. The country is set to launch a first-ever lunar far side sample return mission in May, with plans for lunar south pole missions and an international moon base over the next decade.

A strategic focus on asteroids could contribute to overall understanding of the cosmos but also lay the groundwork for future space resource utilization and planetary defense. 

The authors, from institutes including the Institute of Geology and Geophysics and School of Earth and Planetary Sciences, both under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), attempt systematic study of past asteroid exploration missions and their scientific objectives, payload configurations and research outcomes. Their paper discusses development trends and research, focusing on sample return missions such as Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx.  

Mission NameLaunch YearTarget Asteroid(s)TypeKey Objectives
NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous)1996253 Mathilde, 433 ErosFlyby & LandingStudy mass, volume, composition, and surface properties
Hayabusa200325143 ItokawaSample ReturnReturn samples for detailed analysis of asteroid material
Dawn20074 Vesta, 1 Ceres OrbitalMap surface, study composition and internal structure
Hayabusa22014162173 Ryugu, 1998 KY26 (Future)Sample Return & Impact ExperimentReturn surface and subsurface samples, study crater formation
OSIRIS-REx2016101955 BennuSample ReturnMap and return samples, study surface and regolith properties
OSIRIS-APEX (Extended mission of OSIRIS-REx)202999942 ApophisFlybyDetailed survey to assess asteroid’s properties and impact threat
Lucy2021Multiple Jupiter Trojans and main belt asteroidsFlybyStudy diversity of Trojan asteroids to understand solar system’s early history
DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test)202165803 Didymos and its moonlet, DimorphosKinetic ImpactorTest asteroid deflection techniques for planetary defense
Psyche202316 PsycheOrbitalStudy metallic asteroid to understand planetary cores
Tianwen-22025469219 Kamo`oalewaSample ReturnReturn samples from Earth’s quasi-satellite for detailed analysis
Chinese Asteroid Defense Mission20252019 VL5Impact Experiment + ObservationTest asteroid deflection techniques for planetary defense
DESTINY+20253200 PhaethonFlyby & Dust AnalyzerAnalyze dust particles, study the asteroid’s environment
HERA202465803 Didymos and its moonlet, Dimorphos (Post-DART impact)ObservationAssess the outcome of DART’s impact, study binary asteroid system
Major past and upcoming asteroid missions. Credit: SpaceNews/CJSS

The comprehensive analysis also includes detailed laboratory setups, sample management and distribution, and preliminary analysis processes for samples returned from missions.

The authors posit that the exploitation and utilization of asteroid resources is gradually becoming a key aspect of future deep space exploration. A growing interest in planetary defense missions internationally is also noted.

Opportunities in nascent asteroid field

The paper states there is a pressing need for China to amplify its asteroid research, hinting at vast untapped potential for groundbreaking discoveries and technological innovation. The best strategy should be to sample various types of asteroids at low cost and multiple times, it suggests, as well as combining and coordinating separate observation, sampling, impact and resource missions to achieve the best results. 

There is also a call for strengthening international cooperation and coordination. It notes that both the Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx missions organized international teams to conduct detailed research planning on the returned samples before material was returned. 

China’s first excursion to an asteroid was a flyby of 4179 Toutatis in 2012. The Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter made the pass as an extended mission objective. 

A team also submitted a proposal for a sample return mission to an E-type asteroid, known for their high reflectivity and composition rich in enstatite and metals, under a CAS strategic space science program. While some of the proposals have progressed, the status of the program is unclear and may be revamped in the near future.

Recently a Chinese delegation to the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) under the United Nations appeared to state that China considers space resource utilization as permissible.

With countries around the world in the initial stages of asteroid exploration, timely participation in the field of deep space asteroid exploration will place China in a favorable position in international space exploration activities, according to the authors.

As well as planning new missions, the paper calls for China to quickly organize the assessment of key scientific questions related to asteroids. It also calls for a unified scientific team to oversee mission planning and develop the most optimized analysis plans, laying the foundation for the future management and utilization of returned samples.

An amplified Chinese focus on asteroid research and missions could have a series of ramifications for the field internationally. It could yield enhanced global cooperation while also, or instead, stimulating strategic competition. It could also influence space law and governance, particularly with regards to resource utilization, while also generating rich scientific data and research possibilities.

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...