Caixin
Feb 09, 2021 08:44 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Tianwen-1 Closes In on Mars Orbit

Hundreds of millions of kilometers from Beijing, China’s first standalone interplanetary spacecraft is on track to enter the orbit of Mars on Wednesday, ahead of a planned touchdown on the red planet later this year.

It has been nearly seven months since a rocket carrying the Tianwen-1 — a combined orbiter, lander and rover — blasted off in July from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch site on the South China island province of Hainan.

The plan is for the craft to orbit Mars for three months, at which point the lander will detach and descend to the surface, according to the China National Space Administration’s Deputy Director Wu Yanhua.

Tianwen-1 is to research Mars’s climate, geology and chemistry — and to look for signs of otherworldly life. The craft had travelled over 465 million kilometers as of Friday night when it sent its first satellite image of Mars back to Earth, according to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CAST), the main contractor for the country’s space programs.

Tianwen-1, whose name means “questions to heaven” and references a classical Chinese poem, is the country’s first solo Mars mission. The expedition also marks the latest development in the nation’s growing space program, which has transformed from a lightweight player into an elite spacefarer in a field historically dominated by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

It’s not the only nation sending probes to Mars at present, nor the only upstart. The United Arab Emirates launched the first interplanetary mission in the Middle East from a space center in Japan days before Tianwen-1 on July 19. One week later, NASA bade bon voyage to the rover Perseverance, designed to scour the planet’s surface for signs of life, which is expected to land on Mars on Feb. 18.

If the $8 billion mission is successful, Beijing will become the third to boast a Mars landing, nearly half a century after Washington and Moscow did so.

The question of who actually reached Mars first has been controversial — the Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3 probes were the first to contact the Martian surface in 1971, but the first crashed on impact and the second failed after about 20 seconds. In 1976, NASA’s Viking Project, which included two pairs of orbiters and landers, became the world’s first successful lander program, with both pairs of craft beaming data back to Earth for years afterward.

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But unlike both of those nations, whose forays evolved from early failures and fly-by probes to landings and trundling rovers, China will seek to condense all these steps into a single mission. No nation before has combined a maiden solo trip to Mars with its first orbit, its first landing on the planet and its first roving mission.

The Tianwen-1 mission is the latest in a bevy of attention-grabbing Chinese space expeditions, including the trailblazer Chang’e-4 spacecraft which achieved a soft landing on the far side of the moon and sent out a rover to gather data and relay it back to Earth via satellite.

But it remains to be seen whether or not Tianwen-1 can replicate this success, as Mars landings have a less than 50% success rate, according to astronomer Daniel Brown.

The Yinghuo-1 would have been the first Chinese spacecraft to orbit Mars, but its launch aboard a Russian rocket in late 2011 was unsuccessful, and both craft disintegrated in January 2012 after failing to clear Earth’s orbit.

For Tianwen-1, the final and riskiest part of the mission — dubbed the “seven minutes of fear” by Chinese scientists — will come when the lander breaks off from the orbiter. The orbiter will move into another orbit above Mars and relay information back to Earth.

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Meanwhile, the lander will plunge into the Martian atmosphere at 4.8 kilometers per second (10,737 mph) and fight temperatures of thousands of degrees Celsius as it plummets toward the surface, one of the probe’s chief designers, Zhang Rongqiao, said in a July interview with state broadcaster CCTV.

The lander will deploy parachutes and reverse thruster engines to slow its descent and cushion the final impact. If everything goes to plan, it will then release a golf cart-like rover to roam the Martian surface. The six-wheeled rover is equipped with large solar panels, cameras and advanced radar that it will use to search for underground water deposits.

Matthew Walsh contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Anniek Bao (yunxinbao@caixin.com) and editor Joshua Dummer (joshuadummer@caixin.com)

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