Two days before the Chinese New Year, the country’s eyes are on the sky. On Wednesday February 10, China succeeded in inserting its Tianwen-1 space probe into orbit of Mars. Chinese scientists had no room for error: if the maneuver had failed, they would not have been able to land the first Chinese rover on the surface of the Red Planet.
China, sixth nation to enter Martian orbit
Tianwen-1 is closely following the Emirati probe Hope. On February 9, the United Arab Emirates became the fifth nation to place an aircraft in Martian orbit (along with the United States, Europe, India and the former USSR). China is therefore joining this small club and completing its rich track record in the space sector. Latest feat: the return to Earth of the Chang’e 5 mission in December 2020, which brought back samples from the Moon for the first time in more than forty years.
Like the Hope probe, Tianwen-1 used its eight motors to brake for 15 minutes and find itself “captured” by gravity from Mars. Operations closely monitored on the screens of control centers in China. Not very visual for us Terrans, this stage remains very delicate. If unsuccessful, the mission would have continued its course, getting lost in deep space.
China communicates much less than United States on its space missions. It was not until 2:00 p.m. in mainland France to obtain confirmation of the success of the maneuver by the official Chinese media. “The spacecraft, comprising an orbiter, lander and rover, slowed enough to be captured by gravity from Mars and entered an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet, its closest distance to the Martian surface. being about 400 kilometers “, indicates the national press agency Xinhua. It is a gigantic antenna 70 meters in diameter in Tianjin (see video below) which now makes it possible to establish contact with Tianwen-1.
Landing planned for May
The name of the probe, Tianwen-1, means “questions to heaven”, a reference to an ancient Chinese poem. Launched in July 2020, it comes to the end of a journey of 475 million kilometers. With a mass of five tons, the probe has two important elements: a landing module that includes the rover and an orbiter that will relay communications between the robot and the Earth.
After its insertion into orbit, the probe will conduct observations for two to three months at its potential landing sites in the immense Utopia Planitia plain, in the northern hemisphere of Mars. We will have to wait until May to hope to see the rover land on the Martian surface.
According to NASA information, the rover weighs 240 kilograms. Equipped with six wheels and powered by solar panels, it will have to withstand the extreme conditions of the Red Planet. The nominal duration of its mission is set at three months, much less than the 22 months or so planned for the American rover Perseverance.
(The planet Mars photographed 2.2 million kilometers away by the Tianwen-1 probe. Credit: CNSA)
The rover must study the geology, climate and ice present on Mars. France made a small contribution to this mission: the prestigious IRAP (Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology) laboratory of the CNRS also provided a calibration target for one of the rover’s scientific instruments.
A failure in 2011
China had already tried to send a probe on March in 2011 with the Yinghuo-1 mission, in collaboration with Russia. But after takeoff, the aircraft had failed to escape Earth’s gravity and ended up crashing into the Pacific Ocean.
Certainly, with Tianwen-1, China is venturing into familiar territory. The United States managed to rover on Mars before it. The success of the Chinese mission, however, could confirm the importance that China is taking in the space sector, whether in Earth orbit or further into the solar system.
Source: UsineNouvelle – Actualités A la une by www.usinenouvelle.com.
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