It marked the second flight to Mars this week, after a United Arab Emirates orbiter blasted off on a rocket from Japan on Monday. And the United States is aiming to launch Perseverance, its most sophisticated Mars rover ever, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, next week.
China’s tandem spacecraft — with both an orbiter and a rover — will take seven months to reach Mars, like the others. If all goes well, Tianwen-1, or “quest for heavenly truth”, will look for underground water, if it’s present, as well as evidence of possible ancient life.
This isn’t China’s first attempt at Mars. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter accompanying a Russian mission was lost when the spacecraft failed to get out of Earth’s orbit after launching from Kazakhstan, eventually burning up in the atmosphere.
This time, China is going at it alone. It also is fast-tracking, launching an orbiter and rover on the same mission instead of stringing them out.
There will be challenges ahead as the craft nears Mars, Liu Tongjie, spokesman for the mission, told reporters ahead of the launch.
“When arriving in the vicinity of Mars, it is very critical to decelerate,” he said.
“If the deceleration process is not right, or if flight precision is not sufficient, the probe would not be captured by Mars,” he said, referring to gravity on Mars taking the craft down to the surface.
Liu said the probe would orbit Mars for about two and a half months and look for an opportunity to enter its atmosphere and make a soft landing.
Conquering Mars would put China in an elite club.
“There is a whole lot of prestige riding on this,” said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese aerospace programs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
What is China sending to Mars?
The Tianwen-1 mission is named for a poem by Qu Yuan, who lived from the fourth to third centuries BC, and is translated as “Questions to Heaven” or “Heavenly Questions”.
It includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover. While other countries have taken a staggered approach to visiting Mars — an orbiter first, then a lander, then finally a rover — China emphasises that it will attempt to operate all of these components for the first time at once.
The orbiter, according to four scientists involved in the mission, will study Mars and its atmosphere for about one Martian year, or 687 days on Earth. In addition to two cameras, it carries subsurface radar, a detector to study the Martian magnetic field and three other scientific instruments.
The rover will try to land in the Utopia Planitia region in the mid-northern Martian latitudes. NASA’s Viking 2 mission touched down there in 1976. Aside from a Soviet mission in 1971 that lost contact after less than two minutes, only the United States has successfully landed on Mars in one piece.
What else has China achieved in space?
China has steadily moved into the upper tier of spacefaring nations in the past two decades. Its space program is one of the few that have launched their own astronauts and space stations to orbit. China has also landed rovers on the moon twice.
One of those missions, Chang’e-4, landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019, which no other country has done. Its robotic rover, Yutu-2, is still exploring the lunar far side and aiding scientific discovery about the moon’s composition.
Who else is going to Mars this northern summer?
The Emirates Mars Mission successfully lifted off on a Japanese rocket on Monday.
The space program of the United Arab Emirates is modest, and its bid to join the ranks of countries that have reached Mars is part of an ambitious effort to inspire Emirati youth to take up careers in science and technology.
Its Hope spacecraft will orbit Mars for a number of years, helping scientists study the planet’s weather cycles.
The third mission to Mars this northern summer will be NASA’s Perseverance rover. It is scheduled to launch on July 30 after technical issues delayed earlier liftoffs.
The robotic explorer would be NASA’s fifth rover on Mars, and it is very similar to Curiosity, which is now exploring the Gale crater. It carries different scientific instruments and will explore the Jezero crater, a dried-out lake that scientists believe could be a good target to seek fossilised evidence of extinct Martian microbial life.
The mission will also attempt a new first on the red planet: flying a helicopter in the wispy Martian atmosphere. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter will be dropped off by the rover not long after landing. Then it will attempt a number of test flights in air as thin as the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, aiming to demonstrate that Mars can be explored through the air as well as on the ground.
AP, The New York Times and Reuters