No other planet has captivated our imaginationsquite like Mars. While inhospitable now, billions of years ago, the landscape of this dustyrock was similar to that of Earth, but somewhere along the way, it became a red wasteland.And scientists don’t exactly know how. With countless possibilities, it’s no wonderthat countries around the world are sending missions to Mars to uncover what secrets theplanet may hold. And one of the most ambitious missions yet is China’s Tianwen-1.This will be the country’s debut Mars exploration venture 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 project is so ambitious, because executing all threemission components on a first-attempt is a feat not achieved by any country before. Because,well, it’s hard. Getting to Mars is a several-month endeavourand once you get there, the planet doesn’t exactly send a warm welcome. NASA has dubbedthe descent to Mars as the “7 minutes of Terror” because the Martian atmosphere createsheat to any craft that has its sights set to land.
Only a few missions that have landedon the surface of Mars have been successful and the majority of them have been from NASA.This may sound like a daunting undertaking for China, but judging by their track recordin the last few years, they’ve been rather victorious with other projects. In 2013, Chinajoined the exclusive league of countries that have been able to land on the moon and in2019, they were able to land on the far side of the moon with their rover Chang’e 4,which no one else has done. So, this Tianwen-1 mission is full of anticipation.But as much as we want to get into the nitty-gritty details of this mission, China’s teams arekeeping that information to themselves. However, this is what we know so far. According toa recent paper about the payloads published July 2020, the Tianwen-1 mission will be packedwith 13 scientific instruments, split between the orbiter and rover.China’s goal is to provide a comprehensive survey of the planet’s atmosphere, geologicalstructures, and surface environment.
Which includes the ever-exciting search for waterand other signs of life. So let’s start with Tianwen-1’s orbiter.This spacecraft will not only be used as the vessel for the lander and rover, but it willalso be responsible for capturing images and analysing the surface of Mars. It’s equippedwith a medium-resolution camera, subsurface radar, mineralogy spectrometer, neutral andenergetic particle analyzers and a magnetometer. There’s also a high-resolution camera onboard that is comparable to HiRise, a camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter that’shelped scientists study objects about a meter in size on the planet’s surface in unprecedenteddetail. Overall, the orbiter will use these instruments to study morphology, geologicalstructure, soil characteristics, water-ice distribution, material composition, the ionosphere,and finally Mars’ magnetic field. This little craft is busy.But it won’t be alone in its exploration. Once the orbiter reaches Mars, it will releasethe lander and rover system. Like we’ve mentioned, the lander needs protection andstabilization from the heat generated from descent. So we don’t have all the detailsyet, but from what we’ve seen in past Mars missions, the lander will need to deceleratefrom its release in the Martian atmosphere to a safe landing on the surface. And theexciting part is when the lander touches the ground, it will release a 240 kilogram, solar-poweredrover.
The possible landing sites for the rover aretwo areas north of the equator on the plains of Utopia Planitia. The two areas are low-lyingregions which reportedly are easier for first time Mars explorers to land on, and eitherone provides a good source of deposits to understand the red planet’s evolution. Whichis great news for the rover’s ground-penetrating radar, since it will be one of the first ofits kind used on Martian soil. It’ll reveal the local geology, ice, andsediment distribution. Along with the radar, the rover is packed with Multispectral Camera,Terrain Camera, Mars Surface Composition Detector, Mars Magnetic Field Detector, and Mars MeteorologyMonitor. All the information gathered will be sent back to the hard-working orbiter whichwill be used as a communications relay for the team back on Earth.So there we have it. And this is just the first part of China’s long-term plan tobring back samples from Mars by 2030. You don’t want to miss another possible worldbreaking feat from this space agency, so lookout for China’s Long March 5 rocket expected tolaunch at the end of July 2020, probably carrying the most ambitious Mars mission yet.