China Has Just Launched A Mission To Mars, Here's All You Need To Know
China's Mars mission is on its way to the red planet
With Tianwen-1, China has made a late entry to interplanetary space
There is a clear geological emphasis in this mission's scientific goals
For 10 days this July, Earth is a temporary runway for interplanetary shuttles to line up one after another and take off, all for one destination – Mars.
After the United Arab Emirates’ Mars launch on 20 July, China’s Tianwen-1 mission lifted off three days later in the early morning of 23 July (04.41 GMT) from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan province. For the trip to Mars, which lasts about seven months at current capabilities, China brought out its big guns in the form of its largest launch vehicle, Long March 5, to get to the red planet.
Housed inside the craft and shuttling through space now are three important components – orbiter, lander, and rover, much like the set that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) sent to the Moon last year as part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission.
Continuing with the India comparison, this mission is in some way China’s Mangalyaan, coming six years after the launch of India’s orbiter “Mars craft”, which is still doing the rounds of the red planet, vastly exceeding the time it was expected to sustain. China now hopes to be the second Asian nation to reach Mars.
Getting to Mars, however, is only one of Tianwen-1’s goals. The plan is for the orbiter to go around Mars while the lander-rover combine is sent down to the Martian surface. This step is crucial, and nerve-wracking to the scientists and engineers executing the mission, because there’s much that can go wrong if things don’t go according to plan.
The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) famously dubbed this ‘entry, descent, landing’ or “EDL” phase as “seven minutes of terror” in the run-up to its Mars mission transporting the Curiosity rover.
The challenge is to navigate the craft once it pierces through a Martian atmosphere that is enough for critical arrangements to be made to deal with it – especially the extraordinary heat increase – while not being enough of a barrier to slow the craft down for an assured safe landing. China will have to accomplish this stage successfully for the rover to go about its task eventually.
Although landing on the Moon and Mars pose different challenges, China has successfully executed soft landing on the Moon twice, its previous touchdown on the lunar surface being as recent as January last year.
If China achieves a soft landing on Mars as well, it will be only the second country after the US to land and operate a rover on the red planet. Attempts have been made before, such as by Europe and the former Soviet Union, but success was elusive.
The Chinese Tianwen-1 spacecraft is expected to enter Mars orbit in February 2021. It will survey the red planet for about two to three months in search of a suitable place to land. The high-resolution camera onboard the orbiter will help with that task. Utopia Planitia, a large plain, has already been marked by China as a potential landing zone.
After the planned touchdown, the rover will move across the Martian surface and collect data for various studies. According to a report by the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua, the goals of the mission include studying the geological structure, the composition of the surface soil, water-ice distribution, and characteristics of the Martian climate, among others.
The clear geological emphasis in Tianwen-1’s mission goals complements what the UAE’s Hope probe (orbiter only) hopes to study – the Martian atmosphere and weather dynamics.
The data from the Chinese rover will be relayed to the space agency back home with the help of the orbiter, which is designed to live for up to one Martian year (that’s two Earth years).
Any space mission would hold tremendous significance for the country behind the wheel. However, Tianwen-1 would probably mean a whole lot more to China, given that its previous effort went awry.
In 2011, China had made its first attempt to reach the red planet with an orbiter. It was a collaborative effort with Russia. The Yinghuo-1 (“firefly”) mission, however, met with tragedy as the step necessary to propel the spacecraft from Earth-bound orbit towards Mars – a series of burns – didn’t occur, leaving the craft stranded in orbit and eventually meeting with destructive re-entry and disintegration over the Pacific Ocean.
Another clue to this mission’s significance may lie in the suffix “1”. If it does manage to land on Mars and have the rover walk the surface and return data, China’s future missions could potentially involve the return of samples from Mars to Earth, and even “exploring asteroids and the Jovian system”, as Geng Yan, an official with the China National Space Administration, revealed to Xinhua.
China is certainly late to the interplanetary mission party, but it hopes to ask ‘questions to heaven’, the English translation of “Tianwen”, with its Mars mission. And for the sake of scientific data that could potentially be collected, one hopes they get some good answers too.
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission meanwhile approaches six years in Martian orbit this September. Earlier this month, ISRO released an image of Phobos, the closest and biggest moon to the red planet, with the help of the Mars Colour Camera onboard India’s orbiter.
Here are more pictures from India’s Mars Orbiter from 2018 for your viewing pleasure:
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