Tianwen-1

An artist’s impression of the Tianwen-1 spacecraft

Shutterstock/Axel Monse

Mars has a 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 any international partners.

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

Now that the spacecraft is safely in orbit, the next step is to start the preparations for landing. Scientists have selected a landing site in Utopia Planitia, the same region where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976. Once Tianwen-1 is in orbit, it will take pictures of the area to make sure conditions are safe to send in the lander.

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If everything looks clear, the orbiter will release the lander. 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 the landing is successful, the lander will release a solar-powered rover to trundle its way around the dusty surface for about 90 Martian days. The rover 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 a planned mission to bring Mars samples back to Earth for analysis in the late 2020s.

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