Chinese spacecraft reaches Mars orbit

China has become the sixth nation to ever reach Mars, after its dual orbiter and lander Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully entered the planet’s orbit. Tianwen-1, which means “quest for heavenly truth”, took off last July from Hainan Island off the south coast of China.

Tianwen-1’s arrival came just eight days before NASA’s $2.4 billion Perseverance rover enters the Martian atmosphere and descends to the floor of Jezero Crater to look for signs of past microbial life in and around an ancient river delta and lakebed deposits. The Chinese spacecraft is the second of three space missions due to reach Mars this month, following the UAE’s space probe Hope that entered orbit on the 9th of February, and they will be followed by NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Before the arrival this week of the Chinese spacecraft and the UAE’s orbiter, six other spacecraft were already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian. All three of the latest missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment between Earth and Mars that happens only once every two years.

“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter,” mission managers wrote before launch in the journal Nature Astronomy. “No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way. If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”

In May or June, the Tianwen-1 will attempt to land a capsule carrying a 240-kg rover in a rapid seven-minute descent onto a massive plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars known as Utopia Planitia. If the landing is successful, the solar-powered rover will explore the Martian surface for 90 days, studying its soil and seeking signs of ancient life, including any sub-surface water and ice using a ground-penetrating radar

Landing a spacecraft on Mars is extremely difficult which is proven by various failed attempts. Smashed Russian and European spacecraft litter the landscape along with a failed U.S. lander. About a dozen orbiters missed the mark. In 2011, a Mars-bound Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth orbit. Only the U.S. has successfully touched down on Mars eight times, beginning with two Viking missions in the 1970s. An American lander and rover are in operation today.