December 9, 2023

China has landed on the moon three times and even managed to bring one of its robotic lunar researchers back to earth. Can it now face the challenge of landing on Mars?

The country’s space agency took an important step toward that goal on Wednesday when Tianwen-1, the spacecraft that launched the country last July, began its orbit on the red planet, according to state media reports. With this achievement, China has completed its first successful trip to another planet in our solar system.

The spacecraft was also the second to arrive on Mars in two days, after a probe from the United Arab Emirates that began orbiting the neighboring world on Tuesday.

Tianwen-1 left Earth last summer, taking advantage of a time when Mars and Earth were closest to each other in their journeys around the Sun. This enabled a relatively short transit between the two worlds.

To catch up with Mars, the spaceship fired its engines several times and corrected its course so that it could approach the red planet at the correct angle. After the last engine start on February 5, the probe returned images of the red planet from a distance of about 1.3 million miles.

On Wednesday at 7:52 p.m. in Beijing (6:52 a.m. East Coast Time), the engine restarted for 15 minutes, consuming much of the spacecraft’s remaining fuel in a braking maneuver. This slowed it down significantly and allowed the probe to be put into an elliptical orbit by Martian gravity. It will now orbit at a safe distance and join the cast of other robotic researchers in Mars orbit in preparation for this later attempt to land.

When China arrived on Mars, it nowhere near surpassed its last attempt at an interplanetary mission, which failed nearly 10 years ago, even though it was not the country’s own fault. The Mars-bound spacecraft Yinghuo-1 burned down in the earth’s atmosphere when the Russian rocket it was on failed in flight.

While the arrival of Mars marked a new milestone for China’s space program, a bigger challenge for the Tianwen-1 mission is a few months away.

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 as early as 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.

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.

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.

It’s getting a bit tight around the red planet.

In addition to the newcomers, six other orbiters are currently studying 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.