China launched its first successful mission to Mars early on Thursday, a major milestone for the nation’s spaceflight program that may lead to it becoming the second nation ever to operate a rover on Mars, after the U.S.
Tianwen-1, the spacecraft that is now on its way to the red planet, is carrying an orbiter, a lander, and a rover that will reach Mars in 2021. The spacecraft’s name means “questions to heaven,” a phrase lifted from a poem by Qu Yuan, a renowned writer and politician who lived during China’s Warring States period some 2,300 years ago.
China previously attempted to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011 as part of an interplanetary ride-share with a Russian mission to a Martian moon. Unfortunately, the launch failed and left the spacecraft marooned in orbit for several months until it fell back to Earth and burned up in the atmosphere. To that point, landing an operational rover on Mars is so challenging that the United States remains the only country that has ever pulled it off.
Tianwen-1 blasted off at 12:41 PM local time (12:41 AM EST) on a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan Island. The spacecraft will now spend seven months traveling to Mars and is expected to insert itself into orbit around the planet in February next year.
Two or three months after its arrival in orbit, the lander and rover will detach, as one unit, and attempt to touch down on the Martian surface. The landing site has not been announced yet.
The Tianwen-1 rover weighs about 530 pounds, which is twice as large as the two “Yutu” rovers that China has successfully landed on the Moon. The mobile robot has six instruments onboard: two cameras, a radar sensor, a weather monitor, and detectors designed to study Mars’ surface composition and magnetic field.
The orbiter will relay the rover’s messages back to Earth and also carry instruments to study Mars from its perspective above the planet’s skies.
“The main task of Tianwen-1 is to perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet using the orbiter, and to send the rover to surface locations of scientific interests to conduct detailed investigations with high accuracy and resolution,” according to a recent paper in Nature Astronomy led by the late Weixing Wan, the chief scientist of China's Mars exploration program, who sadly died in May just a few months short of the launch.
“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter,” Wan’s team said. “No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way. If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”
While the success of Tianwen-1 would be a singular accomplishment for China, the mission and its various components will have lots of company on Mars. On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates launched its first Martian orbiter, named Hope, and NASA is expected to launch its own next-generation rover, Perseverance, next Thursday.
The missions are all launching within a few weeks to take advantage of an alignment between Earth and Mars that occurs every 26 months and is ideal for interplanetary trips. ExoMars, a European-Russian mission that includes both a rover and a lander, was originally supposed to launch in this window as well, but that mission has been pushed back to 2022 due to coronavirus-related delays and because its parachutes require more tests.
In addition to all of these new arrivals, Mars is still home to two operational surface probes from NASA: the InSight lander and the Curiosity rover. Hopefully, both of those Martian explorers will still be hard at work by the time the new trio of spacecraft arrive at Mars in February. Curiosity and Perseverance are beneficiaries of NASA’s decades of success with Mars rovers, and they are both about four times as massive as the Tianwen-1 rover.
“The international planetary science community looks forward to these exciting missions,” said Wan and his colleagues in the recent paper, adding that they “will certainly advance our knowledge of Mars to an unprecedented level.”