The Tianwen-1 mission, China’s first interplanetary endeavor, reached the surface of the Red Planet Friday (May 14) at approximately 7:11 p.m. EDT (2311 GMT), though Chinese space officials have not yet confirmed the exact time and location of touchdown. Tianwen-1 (which translates to “Heavenly Questions”) arrived in Mars’ orbit in February after launching to the Red Planet on a Long March 5 rocket in July 2020.
After circling the Red Planet for more than three months, the Tianwen-1 lander, with the rover attached, separated from the orbiter to begin its plunge toward the planet’s surface. Once the lander and rover entered Mars’ atmosphere, the spacecraft endured a similar procedure to the “seven minutes of terror” that NASA’s Mars rovers have experienced when attempting soft landings on Mars.
A heat shield protected the spacecraft during the fiery descent, after which the mission safely parachuted down to the Utopia Planitia region, a plain inside of an enormous impact basin in the planet’s northern hemisphere. Much like during NASA’s Perseverance rover landing, Tianwen-1’s landing platform fired some small, downward-facing rocket engines to slow down during the last few seconds of its descent.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has not yet officially confirmed the successful landing, but it has been announced on social media by the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) and by researchers at Macau University of Science and Technology in China.
Succesful landing of #Tianwen1, on #Mars! Landing point: 109.7 E, 25.1 N, less than 40 km from target location in Utopia Planitia. More details expected later! pic.twitter.com/bMSvziscjiMay 15, 2021
China’s Mars rover, called Zhurong after an ancient fire god in Chinese mythology, will part ways with the lander by driving down a foldable ramp. Once it has deployed, the rover is expected to spend at least 90 Mars days (or about 93 Earth days; a day on Mars lasts about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth) roving around on Mars to study the planet’s composition and look for signs of water ice. Utopia Planitia is believed to contain vast amounts of water ice beneath the surface. It’s also where NASA’s Viking 2 mission touched down in 1976.
The six-wheeled rover, which is about the size of NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, carries six scientific instruments on board, including two panoramic cameras, a ground-penetrating radar and a magnetic field detector. It also has a laser that it can use to zap rocks and study their composition, as well as a meteorological instrument to study the climate and weather on Mars.
Zhurong will work in tandem with the Tianwen-1 orbiter to study the Red Planet, and the orbiter will serve as a data relay station for communications between Zhurong and mission controllers on Earth. The orbiter is designed to last for at least one Mars year, or about 687 Earth days.