China has begun its planetary exploration of the Solar System by launching a mission to the Red Planet. Dubbed Tianwen-1, the Chinese mission includes an orbiter as well as a lander containing a surface exploration vehicle.
A Long March 5 Y4 rocket, China’s largest launch vehicle, carrying the spacecraft with a mass of approximately 5 tons, soared skyward from the Wenchang launch base off the coast of Hainan province in South China at 3:41 UTC on July 23.
Approximately 36 minutes later, the spacecraft was successfully deployed into Earth-Mars transfer orbit, embarking on a nearly seven-month journey to the red planet, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA), quoted by Xinhua. Their destination is in the Martian region of Utopia Planitia.
This region on Mars, whose name translates into “Nowhere Land Plain”—loosely, the plain of paradise is a large plain within Utopia, the largest acknowledged impact basin on the red planet and in the Solar System with an approximated diameter of 3300 km.
It was there where NASA’s Viking 2 rover landed back in September of 1976, kick-starting the exploration of Mars. Interestingly, scientists found that Utopia Planitia is home to a large amount of underground Ice. The volume of water in the region is estimated to be equivalent fo the volume of water inside Lake Superior, on Earth.
The mission’s name—Tianwen-1—translates into “questions to heaven or heavenly questions” and comes from a poem written by Qu Yuan (approximately 340-278 BC), one of the greatest poets in ancient China.
The name best describes the perseverance of the Chinese nation in the search for truth and science and the exploration of nature and the universe, the CNSA said.
Tianwen-1 will conduct scientific research on the Martian soil, geological structure, environment, atmosphere, and water.
The 200-pound rover has six wheels and four solar panels and carries half a dozen scientific instruments, including ground-penetrating radar, a magnetic field detector, two cameras, and a weather station. The rover is expected to function on Mas for at least three months, although it is likely to continue operating longer than that.
Among its goals, the Tianwen-1 mission is expected to search for evidence of current or past life on Mars, as well as produce maps of the Martian surface.
The Chinese Mars program kicked off with a partnership with Russia when in 2011, the Fobos-Grunt spacecraft launched towards the red planet carrying a secondary spacecraft, the Yinghuo-1. The mission failed as the spacecraft’s main propulsion unit failed to boost it towards Mars. The spacecraft eventually rendered Earth’s atmosphere.
This led China to develop its own Martian program. Tianwen-1 is the result of a mission approved by the Chinese Government in early 2016.