China’s Tianwen-1 Mars rover rockets away from Earth

China’s Tianwen-1 Mars rover rockets away from Earth. The six-wheeled robot, encapsulated in a protective probe, was lifted off Earth by a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang spaceport on Hainan Island at 12:40 local time (04:40 GMT).

It ought to show up in orbit around the Red Planet in February. Called Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven”, the rover won’t actually try to land on the surface for a further two to three months.

This wait-and-see strategy was used effectively by the American Viking landers during the 1970s. It will allow engineers to evaluate the atmospheric conditions on Mars before attempting what will be a hazardous descent. Tianwen-1 is one of three missions setting off to Mars in the space of 11 days.

On Monday, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched its Hope satellite towards the Red Planet. And in seven days from now, the US space agency (NASA) expects to despatch its next-generation rover, Perseverance. Tianwen-1’s Long March rocket made a picture perfect getaway in brilliant daylight.

Zhang Xueyu, the Hainan base commander, told jubilant mission technicians that the launch had proceeded entirely according to design. “According to the aerospace control center, the Long March 5 Y-4 rocket is in normal flight, and the probe to Mars has accurately entered the preset orbit. I now declare the launch of China’s first Mars exploration mission a complete achievement,” he said.

The targeted touchdown location for the Chinese mission will be a flat plain within the Utopia impact basin just north of Mars’ equator. The rover will study the region’s geography – at, and just below, the surface. Tianwen-1 looks a lot like Nasa’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers from the 2000s. It gauges some 240kg and is powered by crease out solar boards.

A tall mast conveys cameras to take pictures and aid navigation; five additional instruments will help evaluate the mineralogy of local rocks and search for any water-ice. This surface investigation is really only half the mission, in any case, because the voyage ship that is shepherding the rover to Mars will also study the planet from orbit, using a suite of seven remote-detecting instruments.

The historic statistics for the exploration of the Red Planet are well known: about a half of all ventures have failed. Indeed, China’s first effort to send a satellite, Yinghuo-1, to the dusty world stalled in Earth orbit when its Russian carrier stage failed and fell back towards the Pacific Ocean. So far, only the Americans have managed to run long-lived operations on Mars (the Soviets’ Mars-3 and Europe’s Beagle-2 missions got down but failed shortly after).

China, in any case, can take confidence from the triumphs of its two recent Chang’e Yutu lunar rovers, the second of which made the first since forever soft landing on the far side of the Moon last year. The country’s engineers will believe they are now ready to tackle the infamous “seven minutes of terror” – the time it takes for a spacecraft to make the perilous trip from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the ground.

“Entering, deceleration and landing (EDL) is a very difficult (process). We believe China’s EDL process can still be fruitful, and the spacecraft can land safely,” mission spokesperson Liu Tongjie was quoted as saying ahead of launch by the Reuters news agency.

Tianwen-1 will use a combination of a case, parachute and a retro-rocket to burn off entry speed and slow itself to a stop right at the surface. In the event that all goes well, the landing component will then deploy an incline to enable the rover to begin its traverse across the Martian plain.

Chinese scientists might want to get at least 90 Martian long stretches of service out of the robot. A day, or Sol, on Mars lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes. Dr Rain Irshad is autonomous systems leader at RAL Space in the UK and is involved in Nasa’s Insight lander on Mars. “It’s incredibly exciting to see what China is doing,” she commented.

“Their space agency was only formed in 1993, and yet here they are, under 30 years later, sending an orbiter, a lander and a rover to Mars. “But they put themselves through a training program with their Chang’e missions at the Moon. It’s been very impressive the manner in which they’ve been banging out the lunar missions one after the other,” she told.

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