An artist’s depiction of China’s first Mars lander and rover
This summer’s hottest destination is Mars. On 23 July, China is launching the Tianwen-1 mission to the Red Planet – one of three missions to Mars being launched this year.
This is China’s second interplanetary mission, but the first that the nation has launched on its own. The other, called Phobos-Grunt, was a collaboration with Russia that did not make it out of Earth’s orbit after it launched in 2011.
This new mission, called Tianwen-1 – which translates to “questions to heaven” – consists of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. “It’s very ambitious because it’s a four-part mission: there’s the launch, getting into orbit, the landing, and the rover, and every single step has to go right,” says space consultant Laura Forczyk.
And all those steps must go right on the first try, a feat no other space programme has accomplished on a mission to Mars because of the notorious difficulty of landing there. “No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way,” wrote several of the mission’s scientists in an article in Nature Astronomy. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”
If all goes well, Tianwen-1 will arrive at Mars in February 2021 and the lander and rover will touch down two or three months later. They will take pictures from the surface, as well as measuring the composition of the soil, making radar observations of the underground structure of the planet, and observing Mars’s magnetic field.
Because of the harsh environment on Mars, the rover is expected to last about 90 Martian days on the surface. It weighs around 240 kilograms, about the same size as China’s Yutu-2 rover, which is currently roaming the far side of the moon. “The Chinese mission to the far side of the moon and has been hugely successful, so they’re building on that success now,” says Forczyk.
The orbiter, which will relay data from the lander and rover back to scientists on Earth, also carries its own suite of scientific instruments. It has two cameras and a spectrometer, which it will use to create a map of the mineral composition of Mars’s surface, as well as radar and detectors to examine particles in the Martian atmosphere. It will also look for deposits of water ice that could be helpful for future explorers.
Tianwen-1 won’t be alone in Mars’s orbit. The United Arab Emirates just launched its first mission to Mars, and NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to launch 30 July as well. All these missions are launching at once because Mars is at its closest to Earth right now, an event that happens once every two years. They will arrive at Mars around the same time and should help us understand more about both what Mars is like now and its history.
“The more that we learn what Mars is truly like and how we can operate there robotically, then those lessons can be applied to future human missions,” says Forczyk. The Chinese space agency has previously announced plans to send humans to Mars in the coming decades, so the insights gained from Tianwen-1 could help those astronauts survive on Mars and explore there.
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