BEIJING (AP) – China says its Tianwen-1 spacecraft has entered a temporary parking orbit around Mars in anticipation of a rover landing on the Red Planet in the coming months.
China’s National Space Administration said the spacecraft carried out a maneuver to adjust its orbit on Wednesday morning Beijing time and will remain in the new orbit for the next three months before attempting to land. During that time, it will map the surface of Mars and use its cameras and other sensors to gather more data, particularly about its possible landing site.
That follows the US Perseverance rover’s landing last Thursday near an ancient river delta in Jezero crater to look for signs of ancient microscopic life.
A successful attempt to land on Tianwen-1 would make China the second country after the United States to place a spacecraft on Mars. China’s solar-powered vehicle, about the size of a golf cart, will collect data on groundwater and look for evidence that the planet has once supported microscopic life.
Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Search for heavenly truth.”
Landing a spaceship on Mars is notoriously tricky. About a dozen orbiters missed their mark. In 2011, a Chinese Mars-bound orbiter that was part of a Russian mission failed to leave Earth orbit.
China’s attempt will involve a parachute, rocket launch and airbags. Its proposed landing site is a vast rocky plain called Utopia Planitia, where the US Viking 2 lander landed in 1976.
Tianwen-1’s arrival on Mars on February 10 was preceded by that of an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates. The last three missions were launched in July to take advantage of the tight alignment between Earth and Mars that occurs only once every two years.
Tianwen-1 represents the most ambitious mission yet for China’s secret and military space program that put an astronaut in orbit around Earth in 2003 and last year brought moon rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft on the little-explored side of the moon in 2019.
China is also building a permanent space station and planning a manned lunar mission and a possible permanent research base on the moon, although dates have not yet been proposed.
On Monday, a huge Long March-5B Y2 rocket was moved to its place at the Wenchang spacecraft launch site in Hainan province for assembly and testing before launching the space station’s core module, dubbed Tianhe. The launch is scheduled for the first half of this year, the first of 11 missions scheduled for the next two years for the construction of the station.
China is not participating in the International Space Station, partly at the insistence of the United States.
The space program is a source of enormous national pride in China, and Tianwen-1 has drawn a particularly strong audience. Tourists flocked to the tropical island of Hainan to watch the launch, while others visit simulated Mars colonies in desert sites with white domes, airlocks and spacesuits.