What is the purpose of Tianwen-1? (China’s Mars Mission)

Many countries all over the world keep launching new missions to Mars, our most fascinating neighbour planet, be it orbiters, rovers, or a great many other modern-day machines of space study. Tianwen-1 is China’s latest venture into space. The CNSA, Chinese National Space Administration, launched the Tianwen-1 spacecraft last year, on 23 July 2020, carrying the Zhurong rover, various cameras, and the orbiter.

Its main objectives were to place the orbiter in Martian orbit and send scans and pictures back, to study the atmosphere of the planet in detail and also successfully land its rover on Mars, and conduct scans on its geology and topography, and in the process, helping with its investigation of minerals, water, and any distinct life signs. On 14 May 2021, almost 10 months after its launch, the rover made a successful touchdown on the northern hemisphere of Mars.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter

The orbiter entered and seated onto the Martian orbit on 10 February 2021, and worked on positioning itself to detach the lander with carried the Zhurong rover onto the surface of Mars. After the rover left for the planet’s surface, the orbiter was set to scan the atmosphere and the planet from afar, using various onboard instruments. If the data sent by the orbiter can be successfully interpreted and analyzed, the magnetometer and spectrometer readings from both the orbiter and rover combined could reveal how the planet lost its magnetic field and consequently major parts of its atmosphere billions of years ago. The orbiter is still in function and has sent lots of valuable data and images back to Earth.

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More on the Zhurong rover and its objectives

The most important aspect of Tianwen-1 is the Zhurong rover equipped with an arsenal of top-of-the-line technology, including high-resolution cameras, ground-penetrating radio wave emitters, long and short-range scanners, and communication devices that can send information collected by it back to Earth through the Tianwen-1 orbiter or even directly. Its goal is to search for ice sheets, underground minerals that are supporting or may support life, and keep scanning for any kind of biological signatures while examining the soil using its ground-penetrating radars.

Latest Updates on Zhurong rover

As of 31 December 2021, the rover was last known to have covered approximately 1500 meters of the Martian surface. It was difficult to maintain communication with the rover due to solar conjunction last month, which put it in safe mode. But according to the latest reports, the rover is back in action and safe to continue exploring. The rover has now been working for more than 255 Martian days, exceeding its expected 90 Martian day life expectancy.

Significance of Tianwen-1 for China

The Tianwen-1 mission and its Zhurong rover are among the three major missions to Mars launched during the 2020-21 period, alongside NASA’s Perseverence rover and United Arab Emirates Space Agency’s Hope orbiter. This mission has made China the third country ever to make a soft and successful landing, the first two being US and Russia, but still being the first country ever to do so on their maiden attempt. Tianwen-1 orbiter also successfully slipped into its intended main orbit around Mars and now stays there giving updates and scans on the planet as required.

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Tianwen-1 and its “selfie story”

The mission was a complete success, being China’s first fully “homegrown” mission to Mars, succeeding on its first try, and hence it is a great achievement for the Chinese space community, and moreover, in celebration, they even attempted to “click selfies” of the orbiter alongside the planet, by deploying a second orbit camera, right on the Chinese New Year. It also sent a selfie video, showing the orbiter itself, displaying the Chinese flag, along with a spectacular reflection of the sun casting on its main body. These images it sent back were truly magnificent and got a lot of attention on social media, as these came as a total surprise.

The current progress of Tianwen-1

The Tianwen-1 orbiter has been in operation for 557 days at a distance of about 3.5 million kilometers from Earth, as of January 31, 2022. It has sent back more than 600 gigabytes of raw scientific data up until now, with both the orbiter and rover still in normal operation. This speaks volumes of the success of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars exploration and orbiter mission.

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Future of Chinese space exploration

The country has big plans for its future space science and technology in the coming years. It has already begun working on its major space station by the launch of its core module, namely Tianhe. This space station, when completed, will even rival the ISS, the only space station in operation in the orbit currently, from which China is excluded. Various other space programs have been cited by the country, including those inside and outside the Earth’s orbit, even to the Moon, so the next 5 years of Chinese space exploration and research promise to be a spectacle to behold.

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