China’s Tianwen-1 probe entered the orbit of the planet Mars on Wednesday, state media said, after it launched from southern China last July.
It is the latest step in Beijing’s ambitious space programme, which aims to establish a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually put a man on the moon, and has opened up a new, extraterrestrial arena for US-China competition.
Chinese spacecraft on Wednesday successfully entered orbit around Mars after a 6-1/2-month journey from Earth, China’s space agency said, in the country’s first independent mission to the red planet.
The robotic probe carried out a 15-minute burn of its thrusters at 7:52 pm Beijing time (5:22 pm IST), the China National Space Administration said in a statement, slowing the spacecraft to a speed at which it could be captured by the pull of Mars’ gravity.
In May or June, the Tianwen-1 will attempt to land a capsule carrying a 240kg rover in a rapid seven-minute descent onto a massive plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars known as Utopia Planitia.
If the landing is successful, the solar-powered rover will explore the Martian surface for 90 days, studying its soil and seeking signs of ancient life, including any sub-surface water and ice using ground-penetrating radar.
Race to the Mars
Tianwen-1 launched around the same time as a rival US mission and is expected to touch down on the Red Planet in May.
Its success comes the same week as the United Arab Emirates’ “Hope” probe also successfully entered Mars’ orbit — making history as the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
The probe is one of three reaching Mars this month. The Hope spacecraft launched by the United Arab Emirates successfully entered the planet’s orbit on Tuesday. Moreover, Hope will not make a landing but will orbit Mars gathering data on its weather and atmosphere.
Tianwen-1 will also have an orbiter component surveying the Martian atmosphere with a range of instruments including a high-resolution image camera.
The two probes join six other orbiting spacecraft above Mars launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and India.
Meanwhile, in the United States’ most ambitious Mars mission, the 1-tonne Perseverance probe is expected to arrive on February 18. It will immediately attempt a landing in a rocky depression with precipitous cliffs called Jezero Crater.
On the surface, Perseverance will gather rock samples for retrieval by a future mission. Two other NASA rovers – Curiosity and InSight – are currently operating on the planet’s surface.
If the final landing is successful, Tianwen-1 will make China the first country to orbit, land, and deploy a rover on its maiden mission to Mars, Chi Wang, head of the National Space Science Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a research note.
“Scientifically, Tianwen-1 is the most comprehensive mission to investigate the Martian morphology, geology, mineralogy, space environment, and soil and water-ice distribution,” Chi wrote.