On a mission to land a rover, gather data on underground water and potential evidence of ancient life, a Chinese spacecraft reached Mars’ orbit on Wednesday, state media reported.
“After a nearly seven-month voyage from Earth, China’s Tianwen-1 probe successfully entered orbit around Mars on Wednesday,” the Xinhua News Agency said in a brief article.
The orbiter-rover combo became the second spacecraft to reach the red planet in two days’ time. On Tuesday, an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates led the way.
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Next week on Mars, a US rover named Perseverance is also shooting for a February 18 touchdown to check for evidence of ancient microbial life and gather rocks in the next decade for a return to Earth.
Last July, all three Mars missions began to take advantage of the planet’s near alignment with Earth, which takes place almost every two years.
The mission in China is its most ambitious yet. If all goes as expected, in a few months, the rover will break from the spacecraft and attempt to touch down. If things go as scheduled, China would become only the second country to do so effectively.
Only the US, beginning with the two Viking missions, has successfully touched down on Mars eight times. Today, a lander and rover are in operation.
The title of an ancient poem, Tianwen, means “Heavenly Truth Quest.”
It is notoriously difficult to land a spacecraft on Martian soil and China’s attempt will involve a parachute, back-firing rockets and airbags. Inside the massive, rock-strewn Utopia Planitia, where the US Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976, is its proposed landing site.
The solar-powered rover is expected to operate for around three months and the orbiter for two years, about the size of a golf cart.
On Tuesday, the UAE orbiter called Amal, Arabic for Hope, began circling the red planet to collect detailed data on the atmosphere of Mars.
There were six others already operating around Mars: three from the US, two from Europe and one from India.
Several others have not made it. Along with a failed US lander, smashed Russian and European spacecraft litter the Martian landscape. The mark was missed by around a dozen orbiters.
Tianwen-1 is the second attempt by China to send a spaceship to Mars. A Chinese orbiter which was part of a Russian mission did not make it out of Earth’s orbit in 2011.
Since then, China’s secretive, military-linked space programme has made considerable progress. The first to bring lunar rocks to Earth since the 1970s was its Chang’e 5 mission in December. China was also the first country on the little-explored far side of the moon to land a spacecraft in 2019.