China’s Tianwen-1 mission is now orbiting Mars ahead of landing

An artist’s impression of the Tianwen-1 spacecraft

Shutterstock/Axel Monse

Mars has another new visitor. The Chinese Tianwen-1 mission has entered orbit around the Red Planet, following the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter by just one day and preceding the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover by a week. This is China’s second interplanetary mission, but the first that it has attempted without international partners.

Reaching orbit is just the first step of the Tianwen-1 mission, which took off from the Wenchang launch site in Hainan, China, on 23 July last year. The spacecraft has three parts: an orbiter, a lander and a rover.

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Now that the craft is safely circling Mars, the next step is to start the preparations for sending the lander to the surface. Scientists have selected a site for this in Utopia Planitia, the same region where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976. Tianwen-1 will take pictures of the area from orbit to make sure conditions are safe.

If everything looks clear, the lander will be released. It will hurtle towards the Martian surface, slowing down with the help of a cone-shaped heat shield and a parachute before a set of rockets brings it softly to rest on the ground. This is expected to happen around May to leave plenty of time to assess the landing site.

Finally, assuming all goes to plan, the lander will release a solar-powered rover to trundle around the dusty surface for about 90 Martian days. This vehicle is equipped with cameras, ground-penetrating radar, a magnetic field detector, a weather station and an instrument to measure the chemical composition of the dust and rocks. The orbiter also carries its own scientific instruments to investigate Mars from orbit.

Together, all of these tools will aid in the search for pockets of liquid water and ice on Mars, as well as laying the groundwork for more complicated future missions, including one to bring Mars samples back to Earth for analysis in the late 2020s.

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