Tianwen-1 Soars from China to Mars

James Maynard
Feb 12 · 4 min read

The Tianwen-1 mission from China arrives at Mars with an orbiter, lander, and rover. And, this is just the second of three new spacecraft at the Red Planet.

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An artist concept of the Tianwen-1 rover rolling onto the tawny surface of Mars. Image credit: Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) / Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Following an interplanetary journey lasting 203 days, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft reached its target — an orbit around Mars — on February 10. This flight makes China just the sixth entity to reach the Red Planet following The United States, the Soviet Union, ESA, India, and the United Arab Emirates (who recently arrived at Mars on February 9 with the Mars Hope Probe).

Details of space programs from China are not as forthcoming as those from other nations. However, it is expected that in May or June, a lander-rover from Tainwen-1 will land on the martian surface, likely in Utopia Planitia, a large plain in the northern hemisphere of the Red Planet.

This region was the site where NASA’s Viking landers touched down in the 1970’s. In the Star Trek Universe, it is home to vast construction yards, assembling a myriad of spacecraft to explore the heavens.

China first aimed for the Red Planet in November 2011. Unfortunately, the Yinghuo-1 orbiter crashed on launch, along with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission and the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) from The Planetary Society.

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An announcement of the arrival of Tianwen-1 at Mars, from China Global Television Network. Credit: CGTN

The current Tianwen-1 mission is centered on a far more advanced spacecraft than its short-lived companion. Weighing 5,000 kg (11,000 lbs), the Tianwen-1 mission lifted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, aboard a Long March 5 rocket on July 23, 2020. Tianwen-1 was designed, built, and managed almost entirely by Chinese organizations.

The orbiter will study Mars from above, utilizing high-resolution camera, a magnetometer, a spectrometer, and ice-mapping radar. The orbiter will also act as a communication relay between the rover on the surface and operators here on Earth.

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The first image (publicly released) of Mars taken by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft, from a distance of 2.2 million km (1.37 million miles). Image credit: Xinhua

Following a successful touchdown on Mars, a ramp will extend from the lander, and the golf-cart-sized rover will roll out onto the ruddy surface. This system is similar to the one employed on China’s Chang’e lunar landers. If this landing is carried out safely, China will become just the second nation — after the United States — to land successfully on the Martian surface. (The Soviet Mars 3 mission in 1971 touched down on Mars, but operated just two minutes before dying).

Roaming across the ruddy surface of Mars, the rover will use radar to peer beneath the surface, searching for signs of water. The vehicle is also equipped with high-resolution cameras, expected to record stunning new images from the Martian surface. The rover also houses various instruments designed to study the climate and geology of the Red Planet. Although capable of communicating directly with controllers on the ground, high-speed data transfers are completed through the orbiter.

“Tianwen-1 will give China valuable Mars experience and lay groundwork for a possible sample return mission planned for the end of the 2020s… [O]nly Earth-bound technology can date samples with absolute precision, reproduce scientific results, and verify the presence or absence of life in a sample,” The Planetary Society explains.

An overview of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. Video credit: The Planetary Society

This is the first time any nation has attempted to send both an orbiter and lander on their first visit to Mars. The lander is expected to last at least one Martian year (687 days) and the rover is designed to roam the Red Planet for 90 Martian days (93 days on Earth).

“I shall remain on Mars and read a book.”
Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man

The atmosphere of Mars offers unique challenges, making landings there exceptionally difficult. To get through the “seven minutes of terror” during entry through the Martian atmosphere, current spacecraft rely on heat shields, thrusters, and supersonic parachutes. This decent will prove to be a make-or-break moment for the lander, and there is no guarantee of success.

“China’s first Mars mission is named Tianwen-1, and aims to complete orbiting, landing and roving in one mission. The name means ‘questions to heaven’, taken from the name of a poem by Qu Yuan (about 340–278 BC), one of the greatest poets in ancient China,” researchers describe in an article published in Nature Astronomy in July 2020.

As China ventures outward, questioning the heavens, the name and spirit of Tianwen is likely to adorn — and inspire — interplanetary spacecraft for years to come.

James Maynard is the founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat.

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