This Is China’s Secretive First Mission to Mars: Orbiter, Lander, And Rover

No other planet has captivated our imaginations quite like Mars. While inhospitable now, billions of years ago, the landscape of this dusty rock was similar to that of Earth, but somewhere along the way, it became a red wasteland. And scientists don’t exactly know how. 

With countless possibilities, it’s no wonder that countries around the world are sending missions to Mars to uncover what secrets the planet may hold. And one of the most ambitious missions yet is China’s Tianwen-1. 

This will be the country’s debut Mars exploration venture and they’re going big: Tianwen-1, translating to “questions to heaven”, consists of an orbiter, lander, and rover. And this is one of the reasons why this project is so ambitious, because executing all three mission components on a first-attempt is a feat not achieved by any country before. Because, well, it’s hard. 

Getting to Mars is a several-month endeavour and once you get there, the planet doesn’t exactly send a warm welcome. NASA has dubbed the descent to Mars as the “7 minutes of Terror'' because the Martian atmosphere creates heat to any craft that has its sights set to land. Only a few missions that have landed on the surface of Mars have been successful and the majority of them have been from NASA. 

This may sound like a daunting undertaking for China, but judging by their track record in the last few years, they’ve been rather victorious with other projects. 

In 2013, China joined the exclusive league of countries that have been able to land on the moon and in 2019, they were able to land on the far side of the moon with their rover Chang’e 4, which no one else has done. 

So, this Tianwen-1 mission is full of anticipation. But as much as we want to get into the nitty-gritty details of this mission, China’s teams are keeping that information to themselves. However, this is what we know so far. 

According to a recent paper about the payloads published July 2020, the Tianwen-1 mission will be packed with 13 scientific instruments, split between the orbiter and rover. 

Tianwen-1 is China’s first Mars exploration mission and includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Full-size models of the lander and the Tianwen-1 rover were presented in Beijing, China, on 22 July 2020. The rover is 1.85-meter-high and weighs 240 kilograms. It is equipped with multi-spectral cameras and navigation cameras. The name Tianwen (天問, Questions to Heaven) comes from a poem written by the Chinese poet Qu Yuan. (SciNews)

China’s goal is to provide a comprehensive survey of the planet’s atmosphere, geological structures, and surface environment. Which includes the ever-exciting search for water and other signs of life. 

So let’s start with Tianwen-1’s orbiter. This spacecraft will not only be used as the vessel for the lander and rover, but it will also be responsible for capturing images and analysing the surface of Mars. 

It's equipped with a medium-resolution camera, subsurface radar, mineralogy spectrometer, neutral and energetic particle analyzers and a magnetometer. There's also a high-resolution camera on board that is comparable to HiRise, a camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter that’s helped scientists study objects about a meter in size on the planet’s surface in unprecedented detail. 

Overall, the orbiter will use these instruments to study morphology, geological structure, soil characteristics, water-ice distribution, material composition, the ionosphere, and finally Mars' magnetic field. This little craft is busy. 

But it won’t be alone in its exploration. Once the orbiter reaches Mars, it will release the lander and rover system. Like we’ve mentioned, the lander needs protection and stabilization from the heat generated from descent. So we don't have all the details yet, but from what we've seen in past Mars missions, the lander will need to decelerate from its release in the Martian atmosphere to a safe landing on the surface. 

And the exciting part is when the lander touches the ground, it will release a 240 kilogram, solar-powered rover. The possible landing sites for the rover are two areas north of the equator on the plains of Utopia Planitia. The two areas are low-lying regions which reportedly are easier for first time Mars explorers to land on, and either one provides a good source of deposits to understand the red planet’s evolution. Which is great news for the rover’s ground-penetrating radar, since it will be one of the first of its kind used on Martian soil. It’ll reveal the local geology, ice, and sediment distribution. 

Along with the radar, the rover is packed with Multispectral Camera, Terrain Camera, Mars Surface Composition Detector, Mars Magnetic Field Detector, and Mars Meteorology Monitor. 

All the information gathered will be sent back to the hard-working orbiter which will be used as a communications relay for the team back on Earth.  So there we have it. And this is just the first part of China’s long-term plan to bring back samples from Mars by 2030. 

You don’t want to miss another possible world breaking feat from this space agency, so lookout for China's Long March 5 rocket expected to launch at the end of July 2020, probably carrying the most ambitious Mars mission yet. 

Want to know more about Mars exploration missions? Check out our Countdown to Launch playlist here and make sure to subscribe for all your rocket launch news. 

If there are other missions you’d like us to cover, let us know down in the comments below. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time on Seeker.

Source: Seeker.

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