The first image of Mars taken by the Chinese mission Tianwen-1 days before entering the orbit. Credit: CNSA

China Mars Mission Snaps Image of Red Planet Days Before Arrival

Tianwen-1 is scheduled to enter orbit later this week.

The Chinese automatic interplanetary station Tianwen-1 took its first image of Mars! This happened only a few days before the spacecraft is scheduled to enter Mars’s orbit. While the image is not as detailed as the NASA images we are used to seeing, it shows certain geological features of the Red Planet.

To date, Tianwen-1 has traveled more than 465 million kilometers since its launch on July 23, 2020. The arrival in orbit around the Red Planet is scheduled for February 10. According to the information published on the pages of Xinhua, all systems on board the station are working normally. On Friday, February 5, the spacecraft successfully completed its fourth flight adjustment. 

I remind readers that Tianwen-1 is a complex mission, which consists of an orbital compartment, a lander, and a rover. The landing will not follow immediately after settling in Martian orbit but is scheduled for May.

In case everything goes well, the descending section will be primed in the Utopia plain. This is the same region in which the American robotic station “Viking-2” successfully landed in the 70s of the last century.

The Chinese spacecraft beamed back this "selfie" image a few months ago. It was taken by the TW-1 Deployable Camera which was released from the Tianwen-1 spacecraft in order to photograph it in space. Credit: CNSA
The Chinese spacecraft beamed back this “selfie” image a few months ago. It was taken by the TW-1 Deployable Camera which was released from the Tianwen-1 spacecraft in order to photograph it in space. Credit: CNSA

There is no guarantee of success, and I want to remind you that of all the attempts to reach the Red Planet, almost half have been unsuccessful. Tianwen-1 is just one of three missions we expect to arrive near Mars this month.

The first will be the Arab orbital station “Hope”, which will be in orbit around Mars on February 9, and then on February 10 will be followed by “Tianwen-1”. The US rover Perseverance will make a direct landing on Mars on February 18, without spending additional time in orbit. 

As for Tianwen-1, it is currently over 185 million kilometers away from Earth. This large distance presents one of the main problems for every Mars mission as it delays communications between the Control Center and the spacecraft by around 10 minutes. This means that experts cannot directly maneuver the spacecraft and all commands need to be sent in advance.

If Tianwen-1 completes its landing in May, China will join the United States as the second country to have successfully landed on the Red Planet.

The only other country with partial success besides the United States is the USSR – in 1971 the Mars 3 spacecraft managed to land on the Martian surface, but it did not remain operational – 14.5 seconds later, the signal was interrupted and no scientific data were sent.

Even if I consider Mars 3 as the historic first landing mission to Mars, I, like many other space enthusiasts, do not consider it successful, so I say that China will be second only to the United States if Tianwen-1 makes a soft landing.

In each case, February is the busiest month in 2021 when it comes to interplanetary missions. In addition to the three arrivals around Mars, on the 20th of this month the American Parker Solar Probe will fly near Venus, and a day later Juno, another NASA mission, will make another approach to Jupiter. 

Will the Chinese succeed? It is difficult to predict – as I mentioned above, Mars is an insidious planet, and China has never tried to send a Martian mission on its own before Tianwen-1. Nevertheless, China has invested billions in its space program which already recorded great successes in 2020 with the Chang’e 5 mission to the Moon and back.

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France-Presse, A. (2021, February 06). China’s space PROBE sends back its first image of mars.
Jones, A. (2021, February 05). Mars ahead! China’s TIANWEN-1 mission Snaps 1st photo of red planet.
Kooser, A. (2021, February 06). China’s Tianwen-1 Mars probe delivers its FIRST haunting look at the planet.
XinhuaNet. (n.d.). China focus: China’s Mars probe captures first image of Mars.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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