China’s Tianwen 1 spacecraft, in orbit around Mars since February, is scheduled to deploy a lander to attempt the country’s first landing on the Red Planet in mid-May. Officials plan to share scientific data from the Mars rover with researchers around the world, a senior Chinese scientist said last week.
Chinese officials have not announced the exact date of the Mars landing attempt. Managers on the Tianwen 1 mission have more flexibility in setting the landing date than officials on other missions to Mars.
Tianwen 1 will launch its lander and rover from its position in orbit around Mars. Most Mars landers, like NASA’s Perseverance rover, enter the Martian atmosphere on a direct course from Earth. Those trajectories usually have preset landing dates tied to when the missions were launched.
Wang Chi, director of the National Center for Space Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said on March 23 that the Tianwen 1 lander and rover are scheduled to land on Mars in May.
“China’s first mission to Mars, Tianwen 1, is now orbiting Mars, and we are landing in mid-May,” Wang said in a presentation to the National Academies Board of Space Studies. “We are open to international cooperation and the data will be publicly available soon.”
The Tianwen 1 spacecraft entered orbit around Mars on February 10, completing a nearly seven-month interplanetary journey that began last July with the launch of a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket, the most powerful launcher in China’s inventory. .
The arrival of the Tianwen 1 spacecraft on Mars made China the sixth country or space agency to have a probe orbiting the Red Planet, after the United States, the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, India and the United Arab Emirates. .
Since February 10, the Tianwen 1 spacecraft has maneuvered into an orbit closer to Mars. The orbiter’s current path takes it as far as 280 kilometers (174 miles) and 59,000 kilometers (36,660 miles) from Mars. Tianwen 1 completes one lap around the Red Planet every two days or so.
Tianwen 1 reached Mars a day after the UAE’s Hope orbiter entered orbit around the Red Planet, and eight days before the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover. The favorable planetary alignment of Earth and Mars that allowed all three missions to reach Mars in February occurs once every 26 months.
The lander and the Tianwen 1 rover will target the landing on a wide plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars called Utopia Planitia.
If China succeeds in that feat, it will make China the third country to make a soft landing on Mars, after the Soviet Union and the United States, and the second country to drive a robotic rover on the Red Planet.
The Tianwen 1 orbiter, which will continue its mission after launching the lander and rover, is designed to operate for at least one Martian year, or about two years on Earth. The solar-powered rover, equipped with six wheels for mobility, has a life expectancy of at least 90 days, Chinese officials said.
Once the lander and rover are released, the Tianwen 1 orbiter will adjust its orbit to transition to regular science operations. The orbiter will also transmit communication signals between ground controllers in China and the rover scanning the Martian surface.
The Tianwen 1 rover is wrapped inside a heat shield for a fiery descent to the surface of Mars. After breaking free from the orbiting mothership, the lander will enter the Red Planet’s atmosphere, deploy a parachute, and then fire a braking rocket to slow down and land.
Assuming the landing is successful, the rover will activate cameras, an underground radar, sensors to measure the composition of Martian rocks, a magnetic field monitor, and a weather station to begin collecting data on the location of Utopia Planitia.
With the recent arrivals of the Tianwen 1 missions from China and Hope from the United Arab Emirates, there are now eight orbiters operating on Mars.
NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the MAVEN atmospheric observatory are returning data from the orbit of Mars, along with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and India’s Mars Orbiter mission.
NASA said last week that it had had a “limited exchange” of information with China’s space agency since Tianwen 1 arrived on the Red Planet to share data on the orbits of the Mars orbiters. The data sharing initiative aims to reduce the risk of collisions between spacecraft operating on Mars, NASA said.
A provision of the law known as the Wolf Amendment prohibits most bilateral cooperation between the US and Chinese space programs. The Wolf Amendment is named after former Representative Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, who first inserted the language into a NASA budget bill in 2011.
But the law does not restrict all contact between NASA and China’s space agency, as long as the proposed collaboration passes a review by the FBI and NASA informs Congress of the exchange at least 30 days in advance.
The China National Space Administration confirmed in a statement Wednesday that it held “working-level meetings” with NASA from January to March to “exchange ephemeris data to ensure the safety of the flight of the Mars spacecraft.”
While NASA’s collaboration with China’s space program is limited, other nations have been more involved in Chinese missions such as Tianwen 1.
Scientists from the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, or IRAP, in France contributed to a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy instrument on the Tianwen 1 rover.
The French scientists, supported by the French space agency CNES, provided guidance to their Chinese counterparts on the technique of spectroscopy, which uses a laser to hit a pinhead-sized portion of a rock, and a spectrometer to analyze the light emitted by the plasma generated by the interaction of the laser with the rock surface.
The technique allows an instrument to determine the chemical composition of rocks on Mars. French scientists also provided China with a calibration target for the rover’s laser spectroscopy instrument.
The same French team worked on the instruments of NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers. The scientists hope to cross-calibrate the measurements between the two US-led missions and China’s Tianwen 1 rover.
Scientists from the Space Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences assisted in the development of the magnetometer on the Tianwen 1 orbiter and helped calibrate the flight instrument.
Argentina hosts a Chinese-owned deep space tracking antenna that is used to communicate with Tianwen 1. The European Space Agency also agreed to provide communications time for Tianwen 1 through its own global network of deep space tracking stations.
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