China has just made history as its first foray to the Red Planet has successfully reached Mars, making it the second craft in as many days to get there. Yesterday, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe successfully entered orbit around Mars. It's a busy week for Mars, as NASA's Perseverance rover is due to arrive next week.
Tianwen-1 is an exciting exploratory combo, consisting of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. The lander-rover won’t be sent down to the surface immediately, however. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is going to wait for the optimal atmospheric conditions. The landing is expected to take place in May this year, and is the riskiest part of the journey.
If successful, China will become only the second country to land and deploy an exploratory probe on Mars. Only the United States has achieved that so far. The USSR’s Mars 3 and the British Beagle 2 are believed to have safely landed but did not work on arrival. The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander and NASA’s Mars Polar Lander both crashed into the planet on landing. In fact, roughly half of all missions sent to Mars have failed so far, so NASA remains the only space agency to have operated a spacecraft on the surface.
The orbiter portion of Tianwen-1 is designed to study the visible geology of Mars and the weak magnetosphere that surrounds the planet. It is equipped with a high-resolution camera that can snap images with a resolution of about 2 meters (6.6 feet) from its orbit, which is 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the ground. These won’t be as sharp as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE, but to be fair Tianwen-1 is further away from the Red Planet.
The lander-rover duo is designed based on the success of Chang’e-4. That mission was the first soft-landing on the far side of the Moon, a great success for CNAS back in 2018. The Tianwen-1 lander will touch down in Utopia Planitia, a region already known in terms of robotic exploration. That’s where NASA’s Viking 2 landed in 1976. This location is also exciting because NASA discovered large ice deposits there from orbit.
An exciting instrument on the mission is a ground-penetrating radar that will deliver a detailed map up to 100 meters (330 feet) below the Martian surface. Landers have over the last 50 years have literally only scraped the surface of the planet. This work will provide even more details about Mars.
The name Tianwen-1 comes from an ancient Chinese poem written by Qu Yuan (~340-278 BCE). It translates as “Questions to the Heavens” and hopefully the mission will provide answers to the many uncertainties we still have about Mars.
Next week, it’s NASA’s turn to take the Martian spotlight. The Perseverance rover and its small helicopter companion, Ingenuity, are expected to land on February 18. Don't worry, we'll keep you updated on that too