China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully rolled into Mars orbit Wednesday morning, the China National Space Administration confirmed. The probe’s arrival makes China the sixth space-faring power to reach the planet. It’s also the second country this month to celebrate its first Mars mission, arriving a day after the UAE’s Hope orbiter entered Martian orbit Tuesday morning.
Tianwen-1, which translates to “questions to heaven” or “questioning the heavens,” is a five-ton bundle of a rover, lander, and orbiter that launched from Wenchang in south China in July last year. China was one of three countries to use a narrow, roughly two-month window to launch spacecraft to Mars as it closely aligned with Earth in their orbits around the Sun — an alignment that only happens once every two years.
Chinese state media Wednesday morning confirmed Tianwen-1 completed a successful braking maneuver to ease into the orbit of Mars after traveling a total of 295 million miles. Tianwen-1’s orbital-control engine ignited at 6:52AM ET and fired for 15 minutes to rapidly decelerate its cruising speed for a gradual orbital insertion.
“Exploring the vast universe is the common dream of all mankind. We will cooperate sincerely and go hand in hand with countries all over the world to make mankind’s exploration of space go further,” Zhang Kejian, director of the China National Space Administration, said in a statement Wednesday.
The spacecraft settled into an orbit that will bring it within 248 miles from the Martian surface, where it’ll spend a few months surveying its landing site at the Utopia Planitia region. In May, the lander and rover will detach from the spacecraft and make a daring attempt to land in Utopia Planitia, where a large deposit of water ice lies beneath the planet’s surface. If successful, China will become the second country, after the US, to land and operate a rover on the Martian surface.
The day before Chinese New Year’s Eve, #Tianwen-1, China’s first Mars probe, successfully reached the Red Planet on Wednesday around 7:52 pm where it will celebrate a unique Spring Festival, following an epic seven-month journey of 400 million kilometers. https://t.co/RCzI1qa7F9 pic.twitter.com/8gcCmcXDBf— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) February 10, 2021
Tianwen-1’s landing attempt was originally planned for April, but the China National Space Administration indicated it was changed to May or June. The landing site is about 1,147 miles — roughly the drive from Miami to New York — from the target site of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which will attempt a landing on February 18th.
With the Tianwen-1 rover on Mars and an orbiter scanning from above, China is setting out to trace the distribution of subsurface water ice to get a better understanding of the planet’s geologic structure. The lander is essentially a delivery platform, providing a ramp for the rover to roll off of and traverse the Martian terrain, where it will also analyze the water ice as a potential resource for long-term human missions on Mars, according to SpaceNews.
China’s debut trek to Mars comes as Beijing ramps up its role in space exploration. While Tianwen-1 was flying to Mars, the country went to the moon and back with its whirlwind Chang’e 5 sample-return mission, the fifth mission in China’s Lunar Exploration Program and its first mission to bring lunar dirt back to Earth.
Tianwen-1’s successful jump into Mars orbit garnered applause from NASA and the European Space Agency. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s top science official, congratulated China and said “there is much to discover about the mysteries of Mars and we look forward to your contributions!”