China spacecraft enters Mars orbit, 2nd in two days after UAE

Published February 10, 2021
The Long March 5 Y-4 rocket, carrying an unmanned Mars probe of the Tianwen-1 mission, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Wenchang, Hainan Province, China July 23, 2020. — Reuters
The Long March 5 Y-4 rocket, carrying an unmanned Mars probe of the Tianwen-1 mission, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Wenchang, Hainan Province, China July 23, 2020. — Reuters

A Chinese spacecraft entered Mars' orbit on Wednesday on a mission to land a rover, collect data on underground water and possible signs of ancient life, state media said.

“China’s probe Tianwen-1 successfully entered the orbit around Mars on Wednesday after a nearly seven-month voyage from Earth,” the Xinhua News Agency said in a brief report.

The orbiter-rover combo became the second spacecraft in two days to reach the red planet. An orbiter from the United Arab Emirates led the way on Tuesday.

A US rover called Perseverance is also aiming for a February 18 touchdown next week on Mars to search for signs of ancient microscopic life and to collect rocks for a return to Earth in the next decade.

All three Mars missions launched last July to take advantage of the planet’s close alignment with Earth that occurs only every two years.

The Chinese mission is its most ambitious yet. If all goes as planned, the rover will separate from the spacecraft in a few months and touch down safely on Mars, making China only the second nation to pull off such a feat.

Only the US has successfully touched down on Mars — eight times beginning with the two Viking missions. A lander and rover are in operation today.

Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Quest for Heavenly Truth”.

Landing a spacecraft on Martian soil is notoriously difficult, and China’s attempt will involve a parachute, back-firing rockets and airbags. Its proposed landing site is inside the massive, rock-strewn, Utopia Planitia, where the US Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

The solar-powered rover — about the size of a golf cart — is expected to operate for about three months, and the orbiter for two years.

The UAE’s orbiter called Amal, Arabic for Hope, began circling the red planet on Tuesday to gather detailed data on Mars’ atmosphere.

Six others were already operating around Mars: three US, two European and one Indian.

Many others haven’t made it. Smashed Russian and European spacecraft litter the Martian landscape along with a failed US lander. About a dozen orbiters missed the mark.

Tianwen-1 is China’s second attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth's orbit.

China’s secretive, military-linked space programme has progressed considerably since then. In December, its Chang’e 5 mission was the first to bring lunar rocks to Earth since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft on the little-explored far side of the moon in 2019.

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