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China Makes Historic Landing on Mars

Photo credit: China National Space Administration

A Chinese spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of Mars on May 15, marking a historic accomplishment in China’s space endeavours and making it the second country in the world to achieve the feat. Tianwen 1 mission has left China’s first mark on the Red Planet and is another landmark achievement in the development of China’s space industry.

The touchdown of Tianwen 1 on Mars was the latest example of China’s rapidly expanding presence in outer space, following a string of recent accomplishments that include putting the first section of the country’s permanent space station into orbit, as reported by OpenGov Asia.

The Mars landing was a serious test for the country’s capabilities in science, technology and engineering. Such a challenging attempt is characterised by a succession of complex activities that must be conducted completely by the spacecraft within a very short period of time. The lack of knowledge about the Martian atmosphere also brought a lot of uncertainties to the mission.

Despite its extreme difficulty, every step during the entry, descent and landing processes was executed with perfect accuracy. More than half of the over 20 Mars landing attempts made by spacefaring nations so far failed due to the exceptionally difficult nature of such manoeuvres.

Tianwen 1’s rover called Zhurong is scheduled to observe and map the landing site and to perform diagnostic tests in the coming days. Zhurong will move from its landing module onto the Martian soil to begin scientific surveys. The first photos to be taken by the rover are expected to be transferred back to Earth around the end of this month.

The probe then spent time surveying Utopia, taking high-resolution images to pinpoint the safest place to put the rover down. The aim with all such ventures is to pick a spot that is devoid of imposing craters and where the landscape isn’t covered in large boulders.

The current distance to Mars is 320 million km which results in a delay in signal transmission. Therefore the whole entry-descent-landing procedure had to be carried out autonomously by the landing module based on a preset program and data obtained by its sensors.

Following a predetermined program, upon entering the atmosphere, the capsule would first use a heat shield to decelerate, slowing the craft by aerodynamic drag. It would then deploy a parachute to further reduce speed and drop the heat shield. Next, the craft would unfold its four landing legs, drop the parachute and ignite its retrorockets at 1.5 km above the Martian surface.

The capsule successfully landed on a large plain in Utopia, the largest known impact basin on Mars and in the solar system. The site was selected because scientists determined that it has suitable terrain and weather for a landing, and is also highly likely to have been part of an ancient Martian ocean, making scientific research extremely worthwhile.

If it rolls safely onto the Martian soil and works as planned, Zhurong will become the sixth rover deployed on Mars-following five US spacecraft and will give Chinese scientists their first opportunity to closely observe Mars. A rover will have to overcome an array of difficulties on Mars so the Chinese rover has been programmed to inactivate under extreme circumstances and reactivate itself when it is safe to do so.

If the semi-autonomous vehicle functions efficiently, it will work for at least three months and undertake comprehensive surveys of the planet. Its success would mark the completion of all of Tianwen 1’s mission objectives-orbiting Mars for comprehensive observation, landing on the planet and deploying a rover to conduct scientific operations. This would make Tianwen 1 the first Mars expedition to accomplish all three goals with one probe.

The Tianwen 1 orbiter has returned to its parking orbit and will continue circling the planet for mapping and measurement with seven scientific instruments, including a high-resolution imager and magnetometer. It also relays signals between ground control on Earth and Zhurong.

China has started planning for a sample-return mission to Mars, a task not yet achieved by any country. From the Chinese perspective, space benefits Chinese diplomacy and technology. By going to Mars, it demonstrates that China can contribute to the global pool of human knowledge

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