China has landed a spacecraft on Mars for the first time, delivering a water-hunting rover to the red planet

china mars global remote sensing and small rover hx 1 martian mission illustration rendering cas xinhua
An illustration of China’s Zhurong rover leaving the lander to explore the Martian surface.

China has landed its first spacecraft on the surface of Mars, according to Chinese state media.

The mission, called Tianwen-1, or “questions to heaven,” is the first to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.

If everything went according to plan, a gumdrop-shaped landing capsule separated from the Tianwen-1 orbiter on Friday evening and fell toward Mars. With the lander and rover safely tucked inside, the capsule plummeted through the Martian atmosphere, friction heating the material around it to temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

High above the red-dust Martian surface, a supersonic parachute had to deploy to slow the capsule’s fall. As the lander neared its destination, thrusters should have fired downward to help it decelerate. Then it should have lowered itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.

China has not released details about the state of the lander or rover. But if everything is in good shape, the landing would make China the third nation to ever successfully put a robot on the Martian surface. It’s the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971.

Tianwen-1 launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Landing was “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. Only half the spacecraft that have ever attempted a Mars landing have succeeded.

china tianwen 1 mission orbiter with lander rover capsule
The Tianwen-1 probe, carrying a lander and rover in a landing capsule, en route to Mars. Photo released December 16, 2020.

Now, China’s first Mars lander and rover are sitting in the middle of Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.

If all goes well, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil. The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. It’s set to explore the region and search for its water ice with ground-penetrating radar.

Mars photographed by china tianwen-1 orbiter
The surface of Mars, as photographed by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft circling the planet.

The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.

“Landing safely on Mars is a huge challenge, especially for China’s first soft landing attempt,” Long Xiao, a planetary scientist at the China University of Geosciences, told National Geographic ahead of the attempt. “But it is a necessary step for Mars and deep-space exploration.”

The Zhurong rover has 90 days to explore Mars – for now

china's tianwen-1 zhurong rover replica
A replica of the Tianwen-1 Mars rover is displayed during an exhibition inside the National Museum in Beijing, China, March 3, 2021.

At 530 pounds, Zhurong is about the size of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers NASA landed on Mars in 2004. It could take more than a week to deploy the lander’s ramp and roll the rover onto Martian soil, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum. Then it will open its butterfly-wing solar panels to soak up the sunlight and charge its batteries.

Once the rover is on the ground, it has about 90 days to study Mars. That’s its official mission timeline, but Spirit and Opportunity had the same three-month window and ended up exploring Mars for six and 14 years, respectively.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet,” according to a journal article by Tianwen-1 scientists.

This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.

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China plans to attempt an ambitious Mars landing as early as Friday, dropping both a lander and a rover to the red planet

china mars tianwen-1 mission photo arrival orbit
The first image of Mars taken by China’s Tianwen-1 probe, released by the China National Space Administration on February 5, 2021.

China is about to attempt its first Mars landing – a feat accomplished successfully by only half the spacecraft that have ever tried.

Tianwen-1, as the mission is called, means “questions to heaven.” It aims to be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.

The first steps are complete. The mission launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Now the orbiter is preparing to release a capsule carrying the lander and rover. The capsule must plummet through the Martian atmosphere and deploy a parachute, then release the lander, which should fire downward-facing thrusters to lower itself to the Martian surface. If that all goes well, the Tianwen-1 lander will later deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil.

china tianwen hx 1 mars orbiter lander rover mission launch long march 5 rocket july 23 2020 GettyImages 1227744386
A Long March 5 rocket carrying China’s Tianwen-1 mission to Mars lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province on July 23, 2020.

The landing attempt could happen as soon as Friday evening and as late as Tuesday (in Beijing, that’s Saturday to Wednesday), according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

Any landing attempt would occur early in the morning Beijing time, the CNSA said. That would be evening on the US East Coast. Twitter accounts that monitor China’s space programs reported that a Friday landing would happen at 7:11 p.m. ET.

Landing is “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. If the Tianwen-1 lander safely touches down on Martian soil, it would be the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971. Success would make China the third nation to land on Mars.

Mars photographed by china tianwen-1 orbiter
The surface of Mars, as photographed by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft.

The intended landing spot is in Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely that Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.

China’s 530-pound, solar-powered rover is set to explore the region and study its water ice. The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.

Tianwen-1 is operating alongside two other recent arrivals on Mars: United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe, which is currently circling the red planet, and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which just began exploring Mars’ Jezero Crater.

7 minutes of terror to land on Mars

china tianwen 1 mission orbiter with lander rover capsule
An image released December 16, 2020 shows the Tianwen-1 probe carrying a lander and rover in a landing capsule en route to Mars.

When the time comes, China’s gumdrop-shaped landing capsule will separate from the Tianwen-1 orbiter and fall towards Mars.

The capsule must protect the robots inside as it plummets through the Martian atmosphere at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A supersonic parachute must deploy to slow the fall. As the lander nears its destination, thrusters have to fire downwards to help it decelerate. Then it should lower itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.

china's tianwen-1 mars lander prototype testing
A prototype is lifted during a test a Mars lander in Huailai in China’s Hebei province, November 14, 2019.

As with any Mars landing, the spacecraft must conduct this entire process autonomously. Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal to travel from Mars to Earth, and vice versa, mission controllers can’t communicate with the spacecraft in real time. When they receive the signal that the capsule is falling towards Mars, it will already be on the surface, dead or alive.

That’s why aerospace engineers refer to this part of a Mars mission as “seven minutes of terror.”

“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission,” Allen Chen, who leads that process for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing before its landing. “Success is never assured.”

Meet Zhurong: the 90-day Mars rover

china's tianwen-1 zhurong rover replica
A replica of the Tianwen-1 Mars rover displayed in the National Museum in Beijing, China, March 3, 2021.

The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. The process of deploying the ramp for the rover and getting it onto Mars’ surface could take more than a week, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum.

Zhurong’s name “echoes with the Chinese name of the red planet, Huoxing (meaning the planet of fire),” according to a CNSA statement. “Fire brought warmth and brightness to the ancestors of humankind, and fire lit up human civilization. Naming China’s first Mars rover after the god of fire signifies igniting the flame of China’s planetary exploration.”

Zhurong is set to explore Utopia Planitia for 90 Martian days, according to a journal article by scientists on the Tianwen-1 team.

Meanwhile, the orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal, according to the scientists, is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”

This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on May 13, 2021.

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China’s new Mars probe took its first photo of the red planet as the mission prepares to make history

china mars tianwen-1 mission photo arrival orbit
A black-and-white image of Mars taken by China’s Tianwen-1 probe, released by China on February 5, 2021.

China’s first interplanetary probe is now so close to Mars that its camera can make out craters across the red planet’s surface.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, a suite of robots launched by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in July, has spent the last six months speeding through space. At just 2.2 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) from its destination, the probe beamed back its very first photo: a black-and-white snapshot of Mars.

The CNSA released the picture on Friday. In a press release, the agency said that the probe had fired an engine as part of its fourth “orbital correction,” or adjustment of its path through space. Now Martian gravity should pull the mission into just the right orbit around the planet.

The five-ton probe is set to carry out a braking operation to slow its high-speed spaceflight and slip into orbit around Mars on February 10. Following that, the spacecraft will spend a couple months surveying a landing site at Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock.

The orbiter is supposed to drop a lander-rover combo to the planet’s surface in May, the CNSA said. If the rocket-powered descent goes smoothly, the lander will deploy a two-track rampĀ  for the rover to roll onto Martian soil. The rover’s radar system will help Chinese researchers seek out underground pockets of liquid water. (The orbiter, meanwhile, will continue circling the red planet and relaying data to Earth.)

Such ancient water reservoirs could be remnants of a time billions of years ago when Mars flowed with rivers, courtesy of a much thicker and protective atmosphere than exists today. During this era, Mars somewhat resembled Earth, and scientists think it may have hosted alien microbial life. Any underground pockets of water, shielded from the sun’s unfiltered radiation and the vacuum of space, might still harbor such species, if they exist.

If successful, Tianwen-1 will be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into orbit, drop a landing platform, and deploy a rover all in one expedition. It will also mark China’s first landing on another planet and help the nation prepare a future mission that might return a Martian rock or dirt sample to Earth in the late 2020s.

china mars global remote sensing and small rover hx 1 martian mission illustration rendering cas xinhua
An illustration of China’s planned Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission, or HX-1. Here a rover is shown leaving a lander to explore the Martian surface.

As of Friday, the CNSA said Tianwen-1 is just about 1.1 million kilometers (680,000 miles) from its destination.

Two other missions which launched around the same time as Tianwen-1 – NASA’s Perseverance rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe – are also arriving at Mars in the next two weeks. All three missions are taking advantage of a window when Mars passes close to Earth, decreasing travel time and cost.

China attempted to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011, but the Russian spacecraft that was meant to carry it there stalled in Earth’s orbit and never left.

Tianwen-1 is the closest China has ever gotten to another planet. With luck – and the right engineering to weather a harrowing “seven minutes of terror” as it plunges toward Mars – it will reach the surface.

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