China will land on Mars for the first time

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Sometime between tonight and next Wednesday, China will attempt to land a pair of robots on the surface of Mars, making a bold bid to become the second country to land and control a rover on the Red Planet. The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Mars since February, will eject a rover and a lander bundled together for a seven-minute dive through Mars’s rarefied atmosphere.

The mission marks China’s first independent trek to Mars, about 200 million miles from Earth. Only NASA has successfully landed and piloted rovers on the planet in the past. (The Soviet Union’s Mars 3 spacecraft landed on the planet in 1971 and communicated about 20 seconds before it got dark unexpectedly.) China’s mission, involving three spacecraft working together, is ambitiously complex for a first-timer – America’s first mission, Viking 1 in 1976, it concerned only a lander deployed from its probe.

When it makes a clean landing on Utopia Planitia, a flat stretch of Martian land, the Chinese lander will deploy its Zhurong rover, a six-wheeled solar-powered robot named after the god of fire in ancient Chinese mythology. The rover has a range of instruments on board, including two cameras, a Mars-Rover Subsurface Exploration Radar, Mars Magnetic Field Detector and Mars Meteorology Monitor, according to Chinese media CCTV.

“Tianwen-1 probe has been functioning normally since its successful launch on July 23, 2020,” the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said in a statement Friday morning, adding that it has collected a “massive amount” of scientific data in Martian. job. “With the flight status evaluation, the Tianwen-1 probe is scheduled to conduct a landing campaign targeting Utopia Planitia at the appropriate early morning time of May 15 to May 19 in Beijing,” CNSA said.

Photo by Wang Zhao / AFP via Getty Images

The landing attempt could come close to the very beginning of that timeslot. A report on Twitter quoted Ye Peijian of the China Association for Science and Technology as saying the landing attempt could begin at 7:11 PM ET on Friday.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter, which holds the rover lander beam, has been exploring the Utopia Planitia landing site for more than three months, flying close to Mars in an elliptical orbit (an egg-shaped orbital pattern) every 49 hours said Andrew Jones, a journalist who reports on China’s activities in space. Utopia Planitia is the same region on Mars where NASA’s Viking 2 lander landed in 1976.

“The main task of Tianwen-1 is to conduct a global and comprehensive survey of the entire planet using the orbiter, and to send the rover to surface locations of scientific interest to conduct detailed surveys with high accuracy. and resolution, ”said the mission’s top scientists. enrolled Nature astronomy last year. The roughly 240 kg rover is almost twice as heavy as the Chinese Yutu Moon rovers.

Tianwen-1 is the name of the common Mars mission, named after the long poem ‘Tianwen’, meaning ‘Questions in Heaven’. It marks the latest in a rapid succession of space exploration advances for China. The country became the first country in history to land in 2019 and operate a rover on the far side of the moon. It also completed a short lunar monster mission last December, launching a robot to the Moon and quickly returning it to Earth. with a cache of moon rocks for evaluation.

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China’s Long March 5B, the same rocket used to send Tianwen-1 to Mars, launched a space station module last month.
Photo by STR / AFP via Getty Images

More recently, China launched the first core module of the planned Tianhe space station, which will serve as a living space for groups of astronauts. The rocket that launched that module caused an international freakout about where it might re-enter on Earth. (It eventually made its way back over the Indian Ocean, and large chunks of the rocket splashed down about 30 miles off an island in the Maldives, the Chinese government said.)

Despite this ambitious journey to Mars with its trio of three robots, China’s focus appears to be on the moon – the same direct destination for NASA’s Artemis program. Earlier this year, China announced plans to build a lunar space station and base on the lunar surface with Russia, NASA’s long-term partner on the International Space Station.