On Thursday, China launched a rover to Mars, signalling a space race with the US — NASA is set to launch its own rover on July 30. It also marks a busy week for Mars missions, with the UAE having launched one on Monday — one that does not involve a landing, but an orbital mission that will study the Martian atmosphere.
This is a period that offers a window for such launches, with the alignment of Earth and Mars allowing a short journey.
The China mission
China’s first Mars probe is called Tianwen-1 (formerly Huoxing 1), which means “Questions to Heaven”. The spacecraft consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, and the mission aims to study the thickness and sub-layer distribution of the Martian soil.
The spacecraft, weighing 5 tonnes, launched on a Long March 5 rocket from Xichang, China. The scientific goals of the mission include studying Martian topography and geology and determining the composition of the surface material, climate and environment.
Tianwen-1 will reach the Red Planet’s orbit in February 2021. The rover will land on Mars in May.
The orbiter will use high-resolution cameras to search for a suitable landing site somewhere in the Utopia Planitia region. It weighs around 240 kg and will carry cameras, a subsurface radar, a spectrometer, a magnetometer, and atmospheric sensors.
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The US mission
NASA’s newest rover Perseverance — other rovers have landed on Mars earlier — will look for signs of habitable conditions on Mars and microbial life in its ancient past. Over its mission duration of one Martian year (687 Earth days), it will collect Martian rock and sediment samples for analysis on Earth.
The rover is equipped with specialised equipment to collect data, analyse weather conditions that can help plan for future human missions, and produce oxygen from the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere.
Perseverance is expected to touch down on Mars on February 18, 2021. NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring Mars since 2012. It remains active although its targeted mission life is over.
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The space race
Space exploration has been dominated by the US and Russia for more than 50 years. “China joining (the Mars race) will change the situation dominated by the US for half a century,” the news agency AFP quoted Chen Lan, an independent analyst at GoTaikonauts, which specialises in China’s space programme, as saying.
China sent a human into space in 2003. It has also started plans to set up a space station by 2022. China has also sent two rovers to the Moon, with the second landing on the far side.
Mars is a bigger challenge, however. As McDowell told AFP, the much greater distance means “a bigger light travel time, so you have to do things more slowly as the radio signal round trip time is large”. It also means “you need a more sensitive ground station on Earth because the signals will be much fainter”.
China, in partnership with Russia, had attempted a mission to Mars in 2011 too, but the launch failed.
Chinese mission’s spokesman, Liu Tongjie, has been quoted as saying: “We carry out this first Mars exploration mission to peacefully use the universe and to explore its mysteries. It’s for this purpose. It’s not to launch a competition with any other country.”
And NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said on Twitter: “With today’s launch, China is on its way to join the community of international scientific explorers at Mars.”
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