China is launching a mission to Mars this summer. So is the US

Liu Zhen

China’s first mission to Mars is expected to be launched around the same time as the United States sends its robotic rover to the red planet this summer.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft will take off on a Long March 5 rocket in July or August and is expected to reach Mars in February, Bao Weimin, head of the Science and Technology Committee of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the space programme’s contractor, told state broadcaster CCTV. A ground rover would then be released to explore the Martian surface.

It coincides with the US space agency’s fifth rover mission to Mars. Nasa plans to launch its Perseverance rover on July 17, and land on the red planet on February 18.

The two missions will be launched when Earth and Mars are at their closest point, so the spacecraft can make the journey in the fastest and most fuel-efficient way – this optimal positioning happens every 26 months.

China’s Tianwen-1 probe – named after an ancient Chinese poem, “Heavenly Questions” – has an orbiter to fly around the planet, and a lander that will release a rover to look for water and ice and explore the atmosphere and soil. The US Perseverance, meanwhile, will be looking for signs of life, and will collect surface samples to be brought back to Earth by a future mission.

The Chinese rover is designed to operate for 90 Mars days, or about three Earth months, while the Perseverance will stay for a duration of one Mars year, or 687 Earth days.

“The first key point in the mission will be ensuring that the orbiter gets captured by the gravity field of Mars,” Bao told CCTV. “And the next one will be that the landing takes seven to eight minutes.”

The Chinese team would draw on their experience from successful moon missions to ensure a safe landing, he said.

A test landing of the Mars rover was conducted last year, simulating the process of deceleration, hovering, detecting landscape to avoid obstacles and soft landing.

China’s Yutu-2 robotic lunar rover was the first to land on the far side of the moon in January 2019. Its operation has been suspended while ground control preparations for the Tianwen-1 launch are under way. China will launch another lunar probe, the Chang’e-5, later this year to bring back samples from the moon.

China has been racing to catch up with the United States and Russia and become a major space power by 2030.

The first Chinese attempt to reach Mars flopped in 2012, when Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft carrying China’s Yinghuo-1 probe failed to get beyond Earth’s orbit and eventually broke up over the Pacific Ocean. Four years later, Beijing launched its own Mars programme.

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Missions to Mars were an area of space exploration rivalry during the Cold War. The American Mariner-4 spacecraft was the first to fly by the red planet, in 1964, while the Soviet Mars-2 and Mars-3 were the first successful orbiter and lander to reach Mars, in 1971.

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