China successfully launches its Tianwen-1 Mars rover

China has successfully launched its first major interplanetary mission to Mars. The launch begins a long seven-month journey through deep space, and once the mission reaches the Red Planet, China could become just the second nation ever to land and operate a rover on the Martian surface.

Designed to check the Red planet’s geology, the 530-pound rover is equipped with six instruments including a weather station, magnetic field detector and ground-penetrating radar, along with two cameras. The orbiter will work in concert with the rover and carry two cameras, subsurface penetrating radar and a geological spectrometer.

The next phase of the mission will be crucial for Tianwen-1. In 2011, China successfully launched the Yinghuo-1 Mars mission and reached parking orbit aboard a Ukrainian Zenit rocket. However, the burns designed to send it from that orbit to Mars failed, leaving it stranded over Earth. It eventually re-entered our orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific in January, 2012.

Only the United States has been able to successfully land robotic spacecraft on Mars that can explore the surface. In fact, no other nation has had much success with landing anything on Mars. Europe has tried twice to land spacecraft on Mars, failing both times. The Soviet Union’s Mars 3 spacecraft did land in 1971 and communicated for about 20 seconds before going dark unexpectedly. If China’s landing is successful, it will have pulled off a feat that only NASA has mastered, elevating the nation into an elite tier of the global space community.

Tianwen-1 is actually the second mission headed to Mars this summer. The United Arab Emirates also launched its first interplanetary mission on July 19th, sending an orbiter called Hope to Mars that will study the planet’s weather. Next up is NASA, which is on track to launch its next Martian rover on July 30th. Called Perseverance, the rover is designed to look for signs of past life on Mars, as well as dig up samples of Martian dirt that may be returned to Earth one day for study.

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