China’s Mars probe expected to enter orbit within days before rover studies red planet surface and atmosphere

Holly Chik
·6-min read

China’s first independent probe to Mars is expected to reach the red planet’s orbit on Wednesday, according to the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

Space industry observers say China is confident it will successfully go into orbit and that it is better equipped for complex space exploration now than it was nine years ago when it launched a probe in collaboration with Russia that became stranded in orbit.

The Tianwen-1 will “brake” to slow itself to be captured by Mars’ gravity around February 10 and begin its journey around the planet.

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Last Friday, the China National Space Administration released a black-and-white image of the planet captured by the probe at a distance of around 2.2 million kilometres (1.4 million miles) from Mars. It said mission systems were in good condition.

The unmanned probe was around 1.1 million kilometres from Mars after nearly 200 days of flying 465 million kilometres.

If successful, the Tianwen-1 will make China the first country to orbit, land and deploy a rover on its first solo mission to Mars, further boosting China’s space credentials after it last year became the first nation since the 1970s to bring back samples from the moon.

The probe was launched in July from China’s southern Hainan Island with an expected timeline of reaching Mars’ gravitational field this year. In May, it will try to land on Utopia Planitia, a plain in the northern hemisphere, and deploy a rover to explore for 90 days.

The US and China both have Mars rovers on very different missions

Scientists working on the mission wrote in the journal Nature Astronomy last year: “Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter.

“No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way. If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough,” they added.

Spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and the United States are also on their way to the planet and are expected to arrive this month.

The Arab space mission named Hope will study weather patterns on Mars. It will arrive on Tuesday but will not land.

Nasa’s Mars 2020 mission is expected to arrive on February 18. It carries the Perseverance Rover and the Mars helicopter which aims to be the first aircraft to fly around the Martian atmosphere.

Stefania Paladini, Reader in Economics and Global Security at Birmingham City University in Britain, said UAE’s Hope would not be a direct competitor to the Chinese mission.

“UAE’s mission is fundamentally different from the other two, both in terms of scientific objectives and sheer complexity of the mission itself,” she said.

“[The probe] Hope will only orbit the red planet – which is difficult enough considering how challenging is the insertion in the Martian orbit – while the other two missions include a rover and have a long to-do list, including sample rock retrieval,” Paladini said.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft comprises an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Photo: Weibo
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft comprises an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Photo: Weibo

China space industry expert and freelance journalist Andrew Jones said the missions would help accrue new science data and insights into Mars, rather than being a competition between the programmes.

“China now has its own independent capabilities to develop and launch complex interplanetary missions alongside the United States, which is and remains the long-term leader in space activities and exploration,” he said.

“While there is a somewhat tense geopolitical situation with regards to the US and China back on Earth, and a rivalry and competition in space activities in general, these Mars missions … about science and exploration won’t bring a strategic advantage in any sense,” Jones said.

All three missions were launched last summer when the distance between Mars and Earth was at its closest in two years, shortening the probe journey to about seven months. Failing to launch during this window of time would have meant waiting another two years, Paladini said.

This is China’s second involvement in sending a probe to Mars.

Nine years ago, China cooperated with Russia and sent the Yinghuo-1 spacecraft to orbit around Mars. The spacecraft became stranded in orbit because of a technical failure and was later declared lost by the China National Space Administration.

Paladini said China had a better chance of success this time because it had improved its space exploration technology.

“China never went so far in its adventure in space,” she said. “Between then and now there have been the Chang’e missions to the moon, which have been a resounding achievement in between the soft landing on the far side and samples’ retrieval. China is now far better equipped for complex space exploration, and it shows.”

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Jones echoed Paladini’s view, saying that China would be confident of its craft successfully entering the Mars orbit on Wednesday despite challenges.

“China has already demonstrated it can control spacecraft in deep space with its Chang’e missions, and the engines to be used for the braking burn to slow the spacecraft down enough to be captured by Mars’ gravity have been shown to work during the flight to Mars,” he said.

“Orbital insertion is still a challenging and dangerous moment, especially with the spacecraft being over a hundred million kilometres away and the light communication time meaning intervention in the case of a problem not being possible,” he said.

Jones said the entry, descent and landing of the rover expected in May would be a much bigger challenge.

“It would be very impressive if China is able to succeed with this complex set of manoeuvres and land a rover safely at the first attempt.”

The Chinese spacecraft consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The lander and rover will make a soft landing on the surface and afterwards the rover is expected to study the planet’s surface, atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field.

The Mars lander platform is equipped with a wide-angle surveillance camera developed by Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

It will monitor the landing status, the surrounding environment and movements of the rover regarding the unfolding and status of the solar panels and antennas, which are critical for the rover to land, according to the university.

The name Tianwen means “Questions to Heaven” in Mandarin, and was inspired by an ancient poem written by Qu Yuan in which Qu, who was born in 340BC, asked 172 questions about Chinese mythology, religious beliefs and history.

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