China set off on what it hopes will be its first successful journey to Mars on Thursday, sending the Tianwen-1 mission to the red planet on a voyage that will last until next year.
Unofficial video streams posted by Chinese users of various streaming video platforms showed the Long March 5 rocket on a launchpad at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, ringed by the crystal blue waters that surround the Hainan Island site in China’s south. Crowds of viewers watched and cheered from nearby beaches as the rocket traveled toward the south and east on its way out of Earth’s atmosphere.
China’s space agency, in keeping with a tradition of secrecy around much of its space activities, did not broadcast its own official live video of the launch. It may be a number of hours before the country’s government officially confirms whether the mission, which includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover, is safely on its way to Mars. However, the People’s Daily, an official state newspaper, confirmed the launch in China, as did other state-controlled media.
It was the second launch of a summer filled with trips to Mars, following the Hope orbiter, a spacecraft built by the United Arab Emirates, which launched on Monday from Japan. Like the Emirates, China is taking advantage of the brief window every 26 months or so when Earth and Mars are closer than usual.
A third mission — NASA’s Perseverance rover — is scheduled to launch next week. If all three missions take off successfully, they are to arrive at Mars next February.
If an official video stream of the liftoff becomes available, we will share it here.
What is China sending to Mars?
The Tianwen-1 mission is named for a poem by Qu Yuan, who lived from the fourth to third centuries B.C., and is translated as “Questions to Heaven” or “Heavenly Questions.”
It includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover. While other countries have taken a staggered approach to visiting Mars — an orbiter first, then a lander, then finally a rover — China emphasizes that it will attempt to operate all of these components for the first time at once.
The orbiter, according to four scientists involved in the mission, will study Mars and its atmosphere for about one Martian year, or 687 days on Earth. In addition to two cameras, it carries subsurface radar, a detector to study the Martian magnetic field and three other scientific instruments.
The orbiter will also serve as a relay back to Earth for communicating with the rover component of the mission. That robotic explorer will also carry cameras, ground-penetrating radar and other instruments. Its mission is to last about 90 Martian days.
The rover will try to land in the Utopia Planitia region in the mid-northern Martian latitudes. NASA’s Viking 2 mission touched down there in 1976. Aside from a Soviet mission in 1971 that lost contact after less than two minutes, only the United States has successfully landed on Mars in one piece.
Earlier studies using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed that Utopia Planitia has a layer of water ice equivalent to what is found in Lake Superior on Earth. One goal of the Tianwen-1 mission is to better understand the distribution of this ice, which future human colonists on Mars could use to sustain themselves.
Has China ever tried to get to Mars before?
In 2011, China took its first shot at Mars, and it was unlucky.
Yinghuo-1, an orbiter, was paired with a Russian mission that was to study Phobos, one of the two tiny Martian moons. But the Russian rocket that was carrying both spacecraft malfunctioned not long after launch, and it couldn’t escape our planet’s gravity. Both spacecraft eventually burned up in the atmosphere.
What else has China achieved in space?
While the Yinghuo-1 incident was a setback, China has steadily moved into the upper tier of spacefaring nations in the past two decades. Its space program is one of the few that have launched their own astronauts and space stations to orbit. China has also landed rovers on the moon twice.
One of those missions, Chang’e-4, landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019, which no other country has done. Its robotic rover, Yutu-2, is still exploring the lunar far side and aiding scientific discovery about the moon’s composition.
What else is going to Mars this summer?
The Emirates Mars Mission successfully lifted off on a Japanese rocket on Monday.
The space program of the United Arab Emirates is modest, and its bid to join the ranks of countries that have reached Mars is part of an ambitious effort to inspire Emirates youth to take up careers in science and technology.
Its Hope spacecraft will orbit Mars for a number of years, helping scientists study the planet’s weather cycles.
If China’s Tianwen-1 lifts off successfully, the third mission to Mars of the summer will be NASA’s Perseverance rover. It is scheduled to launch on July 30 after technical issues delayed earlier liftoffs.
The robotic explorer would be NASA’s fifth rover on Mars, and it is very similar to Curiosity, which is now exploring the Gale crater. It carries different scientific instruments and will explore the Jezero crater, a dried-out lake that scientists believe could be a good target to seek fossilized evidence of extinct Martian microbial life.
The mission will also attempt a new first on the red planet: flying a helicopter in the wispy Martian atmosphere. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter will be dropped off by the rover not long after landing. Then it will attempt a number of test flights in air as thin as the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, aiming to demonstrate that Mars can be explored through the air as well as on the ground.
A fourth mission, the joint Russian-European Rosalind Franklin rover, was to launch this summer, too. But technical hurdles, aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, could not be overcome in time. It is now scheduled to launch in 2022.
What other spacecraft are currently studying Mars?
It’s getting a bit crowded around the red planet.
Six orbiters are currently studying the planet from space. Three were sent there by NASA: Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005, and MAVEN, which left Earth in 2013.
Europe has two spacecraft in orbit. Its Mars Express orbiter was launched in 2003, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter lifted off in 2016 and is shared with Russia’s space program.
India operates the sixth spacecraft, the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan, which arrived in 2013.
Two American missions are currently operating on the ground. Curiosity has been roving since 2012. It is joined by InSight, which has been studying Marsquakes and other inner 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.
The post China’s Mars Tianwen-1 Mission Launches on Months-Long Journey appeared first on New York Times.
Source: The New York Times – Dnyuz