How China’s First Mission to Mars Could Be a Gamechanger

No other planet has captivated our imaginations
quite like Mars. While inhospitable now, billionsof years ago, the landscape of this dusty
rock was similar to that of Earth, but somewherealong the way, it became a red wasteland.
And scientists don’t exactly know how. Withcountless possibilities, it’s no wonder
that countries around the world are sendingmissions to Mars to uncover what secrets the
planet may hold. And one of the most ambitiousmissions yet is China’s Tianwen-1.
This will be the country’s debut Mars explorationventure and they’re going big: Tianwen-1,
translating to “questions to heaven”,consists of an orbiter, lander, and rover.
And this is one of the reasons why this projectis so ambitious, because executing all three
mission components on a first-attempt is afeat not achieved by any country before. Because,
well, it’s hard. Getting to Mars is a several-month endeavour
and once you get there, the planet doesn’texactly send a warm welcome. NASA has dubbed
the descent to Mars as the “7 minutes ofTerror” because the Martian atmosphere creates
heat to any craft that has its sights setto land. Only a few missions that have landed
on the surface of Mars have been successfuland the majority of them have been from NASA.
This may sound like a daunting undertakingfor China, but judging by their track record
in the last few years, they’ve been rathervictorious with other projects. In 2013, China
joined the exclusive league of countries thathave been able to land on the moon and in
2019, they were able to land on the far sideof the moon with their rover Chang’e 4,
which no one else has done. So, this Tianwen-1mission is full of anticipation.
But as much as we want to get into the nitty-grittydetails of this mission, China’s teams are
keeping that information to themselves. However,this is what we know so far. According to
a recent paper about the payloads publishedJuly 2020, the Tianwen-1 mission will be packed
with 13 scientific instruments, split betweenthe orbiter and rover.
China’s goal is to provide a comprehensivesurvey of the planet’s atmosphere, geological
structures, and surface environment. Whichincludes the ever-exciting search for water
and other signs of life. So let’s startwith Tianwen-1’s orbiter.
This spacecraft will not only be used as thevessel for the lander and rover, but it will
also be responsible for capturing images andanalysing the surface of Mars. It’s equipped
with a medium-resolution camera, subsurfaceradar, mineralogy spectrometer, neutral and
energetic particle analyzers and a magnetometer. There’s also a high-resolution camera on
board that is comparable to HiRise, a cameraon NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter that’s
helped scientists study objects about a meterin size on the planet’s surface in unprecedented
detail. Overall, the orbiter will use theseinstruments to study morphology, geological
structure, soil characteristics, water-icedistribution, material composition, the ionosphere,
and finally Mars’ magnetic field. This littlecraft is busy.
But it won’t be alone in its exploration. Once the orbiter reaches Mars, it will release
the lander and rover system. Like we’vementioned, the lander needs protection and
stabilization from the heat generated fromdescent. So we don’t have all the details
yet, but from what we’ve seen in past Marsmissions, the lander will need to decelerate
from its release in the Martian atmosphereto a safe landing on the surface. And the
exciting part is when the lander touches theground, it will release a 240 kilogram, solar-powered
rover. The possible landing sites for the rover are
two areas north of the equator on the plainsof Utopia Planitia. The two areas are low-lying
regions which reportedly are easier for firsttime Mars explorers to land on, and either
one provides a good source of deposits tounderstand the red planet’s evolution. Which
is great news for the rover’s ground-penetratingradar, since it will be one of the first of
its kind used on Martian soil. It’ll reveal the local geology, ice, and
sediment distribution. Along with the radar,the rover is packed with Multispectral Camera,
Terrain Camera, Mars Surface Composition Detector,Mars Magnetic Field Detector, and Mars Meteorology
Monitor. All the information gathered willbe sent back to the hard-working orbiter which
will be used as a communications relay forthe team back on Earth.
So there we have it. And this is just thefirst part of China’s long-term plan to
bring back samples from Mars by 2030. Youdon’t want to miss another possible world
breaking feat from this space agency, so lookoutfor China’s Long March 5 rocket expected to
launch at the end of July 2020, probably carryingthe most ambitious Mars mission yet.
Want to know more about Mars exploration missions?Check out our Countdown to Launch playlist
here and make sure to subscribe for all yourrocket launch news. If there are other missions
you’d like us to cover, let us know downin the comments below. Thanks for watching and I’ll
see you next time on Seeker.

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