China’s Tianwen-1 Mission Successfully Begins Mars Orbit

After a few months of observing Mars from orbit, the mission will attempt to land a rover on the planet’s surface

Tianwen-1 Mars spacecraft
Tianwen-1 is now officially in orbit around Mars. Chinese National Space Administration

China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully initiated its orbit around Mars, reports Zhao Lei for state-run media outlet China Daily. Tianwen-1 entered Mars orbit February 10 just before 8:00 p.m. Beijing time, reports Smriti Mallapaty for Nature.

The orbiter is carrying a lander and a rover that will attempt to touch down on the planet’s surface in roughly three months with the goal of studying Martian geology, soil and searching for signs of water, according to Nature. This achievement marks the first time China has travelled to another planet and its successful completion is a key step on the way to China’s ultimate goal of landing on the Red Planet for the first time.

Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven,” is the second of three major missions to Mars set to reach their far-flung destination this month, reports Jonathan Amos of BBC News. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope space probe was the first to arrive, entering its uniquely distant orbit around Mars Tuesday. Meanwhile, the United States’ Perseverance mission is expected to arrive February 18. The three missions, which launched last July, are taking advantage of a particularly close pass between Earth and its neighbor in the solar system. (For full coverage, check Smithsonian’s Exploring Mars page.)

To achieve its orbit around Mars, the Chinese spacecraft fired its thrusters opposite its direction of travel in an automated 15-minute braking maneuver that used much of its remaining fuel, reports Michael Roston for the New York Times. Slowing the craft down allowed it to be pulled in by Mars’ gravity and begin a controlled orbit. The complex maneuver had to be fully automated due to the 11-minutes it takes signals to go each way from Mars to Earth.

Per the Times, China’s last attempt to reach Mars failed in 2011 when the Russian-made rocket carrying the Yinghuo-1 probe failed and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.

In its bid to join the U.S. as the only countries to successfully land on Mars, Tianwen-1 will borrow a strategy used by the U.S. Viking landers of the 1970s, according to BBC News. That strategy involves entering a controlled orbit prior to attempting a landing. The Associated Press’ Sam McNeil also reports that Tianwen-1 will use a parachute, rocket thrusters and airbags to pad its landing on the rocky Martian surface. The proposed landing site is a region of Mars called Utopia Planitia, which hosted the U.S. Viking 2 lander in 1976, per the AP.

China’s rover is as yet unnamed, but if it touches down successfully one will be chosen from a list that currently sits at ten, per state media.

Tianwen-1’s successful orbit marks the latest success for China’s swiftly developing space program. In late 2020, the Chang’e-5 mission collected rocks from the seldom-explored far side of the moon and brought them back to Earth, according to the AP. Chang’e-5 was the first ever mission to land on the far side of the moon and its Yutu-2 rover is still there making observations, per the Times.

China’s ambitions also extend to building a space station, sending a crewed mission to the moon and perhaps even a permanent lunar research base, per the AP.

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