China’s Tianwen-1 is now on its way to Mars. The Asian country's first mission to the Red Planet lifted off on a Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang spaceport on Hainan Island on July 23 at 12:40 local time (23:40 ET July 22). The mission is a triple threat of exploration, consisting of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.
The mission is expected to arrive at Mars in February, but the rover-lander duo won’t be sent down immediately. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) will wait for optimal atmospheric conditions before attempting a landing, probably the most dangerous part of the mission.
"China's first Mars mission is named Tianwen-1, which means Questions to the Heaven, and comes from a poem written by Qu Yuan (about 340-278 BC), one of the greatest poets of ancient China. The name signifies the Chinese nation's perseverance in pursuing truth and science and exploring nature and the universe," said the CNSA in a statement.
The orbiter portion of Tianwen-1 will study the terrain and magnetic properties of the Red Planet. In its suit of instruments, it sports a high-resolution camera that can snap images with a resolution of 2 meters (6.6 feet) from a 400-kilometer (250-mile) orbit. These won’t be as sharp as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera, but to be fair Tianwen-1 will be 25 percent further from the planet.
The lander portion is expected to be similar to Chang’e-4, China’s mission that landed on the far side of the Moon in late 2018 and gave us our first-ever pictures taken from there. After Tianwen-1 successfully lands in Utopia Planitia, the lander will release the rover.
The location might ring some bells if you are passionate about Mars exploration. This is where NASA’s Viking 2 landed in 1976. Also, NASA discovered large ice deposits under this region from orbit.
One particular feature of the mission is a ground-penetrating radar that will allow researchers to map up to 100 meters (330 feet) below the Martian surface. Humans have barely scraped the surface of the planet with robots and landers, so this will provide new information about what lies beneath.
Mars is an inhospitable world with no water, little atmosphere, frigid temperatures, and intense solar radiation. However, it's possible for life to have evolved underground, which is why exploring under the surface is key.
Tianwen-1 is not alone on its journey to Mars. The United Arab Emirates have launched their Mars orbiter Hope just this week, and NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will fly on July 30.