China’s successful launch of Mars mission seals global era in deep-space exploration


Tianwen-1 is the second of three spacecraft set to take off this month for the red planet.


Tianwen-1 is scheduled to arrive at Mars in February.

A Chinese spacecraft is on its way to Mars after launching successfully from Hainan Island in southern China. The mission — named Tianwen-1, which means ‘questions to heaven’ — is the country’s first attempt to land on the red planet.


The 5,000-kilogram spacecraft, which contains a lander, orbiter and rover, blasted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center aboard a Chinese Long March-5 rocket at 12:41 p.m. local time on 23 July. Some 36 minutes later, the craft was successfully put on its trajectory towards Mars.


“This is a really ambitious mission driven by science that represents significant progress in China’s space programme, and they should be proud,” says David Flannery, an astrobiologist at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. “There are a lot of other things that could still go wrong, but so far so good,” he says.

昆士兰科技大学的天体生物学家戴维•弗兰纳里(David Flannery)说:“这是科学驱动的雄心勃勃的任务,代表着中国航天计划的重大进展,他们应该为此感到自豪。” 他说:“还有很多事情可能出问题,但到目前为止一切都很好。”

Chinese officials have been tight-lipped about many details of Tianwen-1, including the cost and launch preparations. “The Mars mission is very risky, so I understand why managers are keeping quite a low profile,” says Ji Wu, former head of China’s National Space Science Center in Beijing. Ji was chief scientist on China’s earlier attempt to send an orbiter to Mars aboard a Russian spacecraft in 2011, which failed. “It didn’t even depart from Earth’s orbit. That was a very sad story,” he says.


Tianwen-1 is one of three daring missions to the red planet this year. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched its Hope orbiter earlier this week, and the United States’ craft — a six-wheeled rover named Perseverance — is likely to launch next week.


Together with the success of the UAE’s orbiter, Tianwen-1 adds weight to a new reality “that Solar System exploration is not the prerogative of the Euro-American world, but a global enterprise”, says geologist Jon Clarke, who is president of the Mars Society Australia based in Canberra. China, India and Japan have previously sent probes into space, including missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus and some asteroids.


Long journey


Tianwen-1 is now coasting through space before it reaches its destination in February. The craft will then spend several months positioning itself for the landing. In April, the orbiter will release the lander and rover into the Martian atmosphere, and these will touch down somewhere on Utopia Planitia — a vast plain littered with volcanic rocks within a large basin, and where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down more than three decades ago. If the landing is successful, China will be only the second country after the United States to softly land a rover on Mars, says Flannery. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover will explore areas of scientific interest.


The orbiter will loop around Mars for an entire Martian year and act as a communication link for the rover, which has a lifetime of around 90 Martian days — the equivalent of some 93 days on Earth.


China’s mission aims to conduct a global survey of the planet, including studying its geological structures, surface characteristics and climate. The orbiter is packed with seven scientific instruments, and the rover has six more. These include several cameras, subsurface radar and a spectrometer.


A magnetic-field detector on the rover could gain valuable insights into Mars’s past magnetic field, which would have shielded the planet from radiation, says Flannery. And its ground-penetrating radar will help discern some of the geological structures just below the surface of the planet, he says.

弗兰纳里说,在火星车上的磁场探测器可以对火星过去的磁场获得有价值的见解,而磁场可以使行星免受辐射。 他说,它的探地雷达将有助于辨别行星表面以下的某些地质结构。

The designs of the orbiter and rover seem to draw on China’s several successful missions to the Moon, but are significantly larger than previous probes, says Clarke. The mission “promises to be a milestone in Chinese and global exploration of the planet”, he says. “It will mean new and complementary data about Mars from orbit and from a new location on the Mars surface.”

克拉克说,轨道飞行器和火星车的设计似乎借鉴了中国几次成功的登月任务,但比以前的探测器大得多。 他说,这项任务“有望成为中国乃至全球探索火星的里程碑”。 “这将意味着来自轨道和火星表面新位置的有关火星的新的补充数据。”

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