China’s space agency has a penchant for secrecy in its missions. It has shown more openness over the past year, delivering a live video on state media of the launch of its Chang’e-4 mission to the moon. If there is a more precise arrival time, we will provide it here.
What will the spaceship do on Wednesday?
Tianwen-1 took off from China last July, taking advantage of a time when Mars and Earth were closest to each other on their journeys around the Sun. This enables a relatively short transit between the two worlds.
To catch up with Mars, the spacecraft fired its engines several times and corrected its course so that it could approach the red planet at the correct angle. The last firing of the engine was on February 5, and the probe returned images of the red planet from a distance of about 1.3 million miles.
On Wednesday, the engine comes on again and consumes much of the spacecraft’s remaining fuel in a braking maneuver. That should slow it down considerably and allow the probe to be caught by Martian gravity. There it will circle at a safe distance, join the other group of robot researchers in Mars orbit and prepare for this later attempt to land on the surface.
Could something go wrong?
Space history is littered with failed trips to Mars, including a 2011 Chinese mission that never got out of orbit following the failure of the Russian rocket it was on. And some spaceships stumbled during this final step in preparing for Mars orbit.
For example, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter suffered a navigation error in 1999 – English units were not converted to metric units – and the spacecraft burned in the Martian atmosphere. In 1992, NASA lost contact with its Mars Observer spacecraft a few days before arriving on Mars, possibly due to a broken fuel line. After a Soviet mission in 1974, Mars 4, failed to fire its retro rockets, the spacecraft sailed away from Mars.
However, the challenge of orbiting Mars is nothing compared to landing there.
When will China land on Mars?
The orbiter carries a lander and a rover that make the difficult transition to the surface difficult. China says it will attempt to land on Mars in May but has not given a date.
Your destination is Utopia Planitia, a large basin in the northern hemisphere that was most likely struck once by a meteor and was visited by NASA lander Viking 2 in 1976. One goal of the Tianwen-1 mission is to better understand the distribution of ice in this region that future human colonists on Mars could feed on.
Landing on the red planet is dangerous. Spaceships descend at high speed and the thin atmosphere does little to slow down the journey to the ground. Air friction still creates extreme heat that needs to be absorbed or dissipated. A number of Soviet, NASA and European missions have crashed. Only NASA landed intact more than once.
The Chinese spacecraft will spend months orbiting Mars checking systems and choosing a landing site that won’t be too treacherous.
If it lands in one piece, the rover needs a name. After nominations from people from China, a group of experts selected 10 semi-finalists. Among them are hongyi, a Chinese word for ambition and perseverance, according to state media; Qilin, a hoof creature from Chinese legend; and Nezha, a young deity who is considered the patron saint of rebellious youth.
What else has China achieved in space lately?
Since China launched its mission to Mars in July, it has been to the moon and back.
The Chang’e-5 mission started in November, collected moon samples, and then brought them back to Earth for examination. It was the first new cache of moonstones since the Soviet Union’s last moon mission in 1976.
China’s Chang’e-4 mission, the first to land on the other side of the moon, is still in operation, and its Yutu-2 rover is still exploring the lunar surface more than two years after its launch.
What else will arrive on the red planet in 2021?
The first robotic probe to land on Mars that year was Hope, an orbiter from the emerging United Arab Emirates space agency. It arrived on Tuesday and will begin a study of the red planet’s atmosphere to help planetary scientists understand Mars’ weather dynamics.
The third new visitor to Mars will be Perseverance, NASA’s newest rover. It launched a little later than the other two spaceships last July and will skip Mars orbit and head straight for the planet’s surface on February 18.
The robot explorer would be NASA’s fifth rover on Mars, and it’s very similar to Curiosity, which is now exploring Gale crater. The new rover has a variety of scientific instruments and will explore Jezero Crater, a dry lake that scientists believe could be a good target for finding fossilized evidence of the extinct microbial life of Mars.
The mission will also attempt a new premiere on the red planet: flying a helicopter in the wispy Martian atmosphere. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is dropped from the rover shortly after landing. It will then attempt a series of test flights in air as thin as the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere to demonstrate that Mars can be explored both in the air and on the ground.
What other spaceships are currently studying Mars?
It’s getting a bit tight around the red planet.
Six orbiters are currently exploring the planet from space. Three were sent there by NASA: Mars Odyssey (2001), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2005), and MAVEN (2013).
Europe has two spaceships in orbit. The Mars Express Orbiter was launched in 2003, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was launched in 2016 and shared with the Russian space program.
India operates the sixth spacecraft, the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan, which was launched in 2013.
Two American missions are currently deployed on site. Curiosity has fluctuated since 2012. InSight has also been investigating marsquakes and other internal properties of the red planet since 2018. A third American mission, the Opportunity Rover, expired in 2019 when a dust storm caused it to lose power.