China Makes History With Its First Successful Mars Mission

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, carrying a rover that will attempt to land on Mars in May, is now safely in orbit just one day after the UAE accomplished the same feat.
​Image: Xinhua News Agency/ Contributor via Getty Images
Image: Xinhua News Agency/ Contributor via Getty Images

China’s first successful Mars mission, Tianwen-1, swung itself into Martian orbit on Wednesday after a seven-month voyage through interplanetary space. In addition to its orbiter component, Tianwen-1 is carrying a lander and rover, both of which will attempt to touch down on the Martian surface in May.

Tianwen-1’s arrival at Mars is yet another triumph for China’s planetary exploration program, which has already cinched several pioneering Moon missions over the past decade. China is now the sixth entity to put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, having missed out on fifth place by just one day—the United Arab Emirates placed its Hope probe in Martian orbit on Tuesday.  


If the surface component of Tianwen-1 sticks its landing in a few months, China will become the second nation to have placed an operational rover on the Martian landscape, after the United States. But simply getting to Mars orbit is an achievement in itself: China has been working toward this day since the heartbreaking loss of its first Mars shot, a Russian-Chinese mission called Fobos-Grunt, which became stranded in Earth orbit in 2011 after a launch malfunction.

While the entire mission is named Tianwen-1, meaning “questions to heaven,” the rover will have a separate name that is currently being decided in a public vote.

Much like NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due to land on Mars next Thursday, China’s rover is designed to search for signs of past or present life on the red planet. If all goes to plan, the lander will safely deliver the rover to the Utopia Planitia region of Mars, one of the largest impact basins in the solar system.

Equipped with two cameras, several environmental detectors, and ground-penetrating radar, the rover will explore the southern portion of this enormous ancient crater. Its radar system will be able to penetrate 100 meters (330 feet) into the Martian surface, potentially allowing it to procure a close-up view of large subterranean reservoirs of water ice that a NASA orbiter detected under the basin.

The rover is a step toward a future sample-return mission to Mars, which is another objective it has in common with Perseverance. But while the two rovers share some science goals, they are very different in design: Perseverance is more than four times as massive as China’s rover, and will be equipped with a small helicopter and a sample-collecting drill.

As the rovers hunt around for signs of life on Mars, Tianwen’s orbital component will continue to soar above the Martian skies, studying the planet from a distance. The orbiter is also carrying two cameras, along with a suite of instruments designed to examine the planet’s magnetism, composition, and atmosphere.

The spacecraft achieved some impressive results before it even arrived at Mars, including taking a bunch of deep space selfies with a camera deployed a few months into its journey. During its final approach to Mars, the mission has also snapped a photo of its looming view of the planet, which is now its home.