China has successfully completed its first-ever interplanetary mission with the Tianwen-1 Mars mission launch.
Propelled into orbit from Hainan Island at 12.40pm local time on 23 July, the Long-March 5 rocket used in the mission is one of the largest and most powerful of the Long March rockets built by China.
The craft and its cargo were launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site and accelerated out of the atmosphere and into space at nearly eight times the speed of a rifle bullet (+24 000kph.)
The rocket’s payload, central to the success of the mission, consists of a Mars orbiter, lander and rover.
China said the mission would make contact with the Red Planet in February next year.
Once the seven-month trek to Mars is complete, the Mars orbiter will be ejected into space to eventually settle into a polar elliptical orbit. The remainder of the craft will attempt to make contact with the planet’s surface. A series of retrorockets and parachutes will slow the craft down and deposit the lander and rover onto the Martian surface.
The Mars orbiter will act as the interplanetary beacon, relaying any data collected from the rover to the command centre in China. The orbiter is equipped with two cameras, a spectrometer, a magnetometer, and a series of other scientific instruments designed to map and study the surface of Mars.
The Mars lander is designed to safely land the 240kg rover and its delicate instruments intact onto the ground. However, the task has historically proven to be difficult. The European Space Agency made two failed attempts landing crafts on the Martian surface. The solar-powered rover, twice as heavy as the moon-exploring Yutu rover, will spend three months collecting as much information as possible.
According to the Nature Astronomy Paper, the Tianwen-1 Mars rover is equipped with a multispectral camera, subsurface exploration radar, surface composition detector, terrain camera, meteorology monitor and magnetic field detector.
If the landing is successful, China will join the United States as the only two nations with Rover Programmes on the planet surface.
2020 is an important year for Mars exploration. Along with China, the United Arab Emirates successfully launched Hope (Emirates Mars Mission) on July 19. NASA will launch Perseverance, its latest Mars effort, at the end of July.
Tianwen translates to ‘Questions from Heaven’ and was the title of a poem written by 4th century BC poet Qu Yuan.