China's Mars probe successfully reaches red planet. Next up: NASA's Perseverance rover.
One day after UAE's Hope orbiter reached Mars, China's more ambitious Tianwen-1 spacecraft, carrying state-of-the-art instruments, a lander and a six-wheel rover, slipped into an orbit around the red planet Wednesday after a seven-month voyage from Earth.
Tianwen-1's arrival came just eight days before NASA's $2.4 billion Perseverance rover enters the martian atmosphere and descends to the floor of Jezero Crater to look for signs of past microbial life in and around an ancient river delta and lakebed deposits.
Perseverance is the most technologically advanced spacecraft ever sent to Mars, but Tianwen-1, the first all-Chinese mission to the red planet and its most sophisticated space probe to date, demonstrates the growing maturity and reach of China's space program.
"Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter," mission managers wrote before launch in the journal Nature Astronomy. "No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way. If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough."
Tianwen-1, launched July 23, 2020, from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, needed seven months to complete its long flight to Mars. The probe reached its target Wednesday, firing its main engine for about 15 minutes to slow down enough to be captured by the red planet's gravity.
"China's first Mars probe Tianwen-1 has successfully entered the orbit of the red planet after a crucial 'brake' to decelerate and be captured by Mars gravity," tweeted CGTN, a state-owned English language channel.
The Tianwen-1 mother ship, which will remain in polar orbit throughout its two-year mission, is equipped with seven instruments, including high- and medium-resolution cameras; a ground-penetrating radar; a mineralogy spectrometer; a magnetometer; and two charged particle detectors.
The orbiter is expected to release a landing craft in May that will descend to a rocket-powered touchdown on a broad, 2,000-mile-wide plain known as Utopia Planitia.
The 530-pound rover will ride down to the surface firmly locked in place on the lander's upper deck. If all goes well, extendable ramps will unfurl and the rover will drive itself down to the surface for a planned 90-day mission.
Equipped with six instruments, including a multi-spectral camera, a terrain camera, a ground-penetrating radar, magnetic field detector, meteorology sensors and others, the rover will communicate with flight controllers on Earth using the Tianwen-1 orbiter as a relay station.
China has successfully sent two rovers to the moon, including one that landed on the never-before-visited far side. An attempt to send an orbiter to Mars atop a Russian rocket in 2011 ended in failure when the Zenit booster malfunctioned.
NASA is the clear world leader in Mars exploration, successfully landing eight spacecraft on the martian surface: two Vikings in 1976; the Mars Pathfinder rover in 1997; the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, in 2004; the stationary Phoenix lander in 2008; the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover in 2012; and the stationary InSight lander in 2018.
InSight and Curiosity are still operational, as are three NASA orbiters.
Perseverance, an upgraded version of Curiosity and four times heavier than its Chinese cousin, is the most advanced rover of them all. It is equipped with state-of-the-art cameras and instruments to search for signs of past microbial life.
It also will deploy a small experimental helicopter — a first on Mars — and collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth by a joint NASA-European Space Agency mission at the end of the decade.
The Chinese say they're also planning a Mars sample return mission around 2030.
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