The Chinese space authorities will launch the country’s first Mars probe in the coming weeks, as the country races to match with the US’ dominance of space. The Tianwen-1 Mars rover is scheduled to blast-off from Hainan island, off China’s south coast, between July 20 and 25. Tianwen-1 will be China’s first-ever interplanetary mission.
The historic event occurs shortly before the next US Mars rover, also scheduled before the end of the month.
I speculate CNSA engineers are looking to particularly demonstrate a safe landing
Dr Jim Bell
Named after an ancient Chinese poem, the Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter, rover and lander.
The cutting-edge space probe is expected to collect samples from the Red Planet’s surface.
The system will be carried into space on a Long March 5 rocket.
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Tianwen-1 is expected to reach Mars sometime in February 2021.
The dates have been chosen because the Earth and Mars are only aligned at an optimal position for spaceflight for a short period once every 26 months.
Scientists involved in Tianwen-1 said they did not have permission from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) to speak to the media, and the agency did not respond to questions.
Several sources within China’s space community believe the agency is muting publicity to temper expectations for a risky mission.
China has not yet announced which of two candidate landing sites it prefers.
Both are flat, smooth plains close to where NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers touched down in 1976.
The low-lying sites give the lander’s parachute more time to work.
Dr Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, and veteran of several Mars rover missions, revealed scientists have to weigh risks against geological benefits of exploring higher elevations.
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He said: “I speculate [CNSA engineers] are looking to particularly demonstrate a safe landing.”
CNSA chief mission architect Zhang Rongqiao said during a July 2019 lecture on the mission: “Our goal is to explore and gather as much scientific data as possible.”
The orbiter aims to study the martian magnetic field and atmosphere.
With a high-resolution camera, Tianwen-1 will map the surface and characterise its geology.
The as-yet-unnamed, 240-kilogram rover, the size of a small golf cart and one-quarter the weight of Perseverance, carries six scientific instruments.
Among them is a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) that, along with one on Perseverance, will be the first such devices on Mars, able to map subsurface features that orbiting radars see only dimly.
Elena Pettinelli, a geophysicist at Roma Tre University, who has helped analyse GPR data from China’s Chang’e 3 and 4 missions to the Moon, added: “You can really investigate layering, structures, and the presence of permafrost or ice.”
The US delayed the launch window of its own Perseverance probe—its fifth Mars rover mission—three times over the past month due to technical issues.
US-based space agency NASA initially said the launch must take place no later than August 15.
However, more recently suggested the launch window may be extended.
China has hugely expanded its space programme in recent years to compete with the US and Russia.
And the authoritarian state has announced ambitions to put a taikonaut on the Moon.
In 2019, China sent the Yutu-2 rover to the far side of the lunar surface in a world first.
China has also touted its co-operation with the European Space Agency (ESA).
A Chang’e 5 lunar probe is set to launch later this year, and a new space station is due for completion in 2022.
The US banned Chinese astronauts from using the International Space Station (ISS) over national security concerns.
Last week, China also launched the final satellite in its homegrown Beidou navigational system, which competes with the GPS system pioneered by the US.
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