On the morning of July 23rd, China launched its fully indigenous Tianwen-1 Mars rover mission.
Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter and a lander/rover duo, a combination of craft that had never before launched together toward the Red Planet.
The ambition of Tianwen-1 is especially striking given that it’s China’s first attempt at a full-on Mars mission.
“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter,” team members wrote in a recent Nature Astronomy paper outlining the mission’s main objectives. “No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way. If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”
If nothing goes wrong, Tianwen-1 will arrive on Mars in February 2021.
The lander/rover pair will land on the planet two or three months later, somewhere within Utopia Planitia, a large plain in the planet’s Northern Hemisphere that also welcomed NASA’s Viking 2 lander in 1976.
The solar-powered rover will then spend about 90 Martian days, or sols, studying its surroundings in detail. It is approximately 40 minutes longer than one Earth day.
It will do so with six different science instruments, which the Nature Astronomy paper identified as the Multispectral Camera, Terrain Camera, Mars-Rover Subsurface Exploration Radar, Mars Surface Composition Detector, Mars Magnetic Field Detector and Mars Meteorology Monitor.
Overall, Tianwen-1 aims to take Mars’ measure in a variety of ways.
“Specifically, the scientific objectives of Tianwen-1 include: (1) to map the morphology and geological structure, (2) to investigate the surface soil characteristics and water-ice distribution, (3) to analyze the surface material composition, (4) to measure the ionosphere and the characteristics of the Martian climate and environment at the surface, and (5) to perceive the physical fields (electromagnetic, gravitational) and internal structure of Mars,” mission team members wrote in the Nature Astronomy paper.
The paper also explained the mission’s name: Tianwen means “questions to heaven,” and it was taken from the title of a poem by Qu Yuan, who lived from about 340 to 278 BCE.
Just days earlier, the UAE’s first Mars mission, and the first by any Arab state, launched on July 19th. The HOPE orbiter was launched to study the Martian atmosphere and climate, streaking into space from Japan atop an H-2A rocket.
Additionally, NASA’s next Mars rover, the 1,040 kg Perseverance, is scheduled to lift off on July 30th.
Perseverance, the centerpiece of the $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, will hunt for signs of ancient life inside the 28-mile-wide (45 km) Jezero Crater, which harbored a lake and a river delta billions of years ago.
All three of these missions are scheduled to arrive to Mars in February 2021.
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