China launches robotic mission to orbit, land, and drive on Mars – Astronomy Now Online

A Long March 5 rocket takes off Thursday from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island with the Tianwen 1 Mars mission. Credit: Xinhua

A heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket propelled Chinas first Mars landing mission toward the red planet on Thursday after launching from a seaside spaceport on Hainan Island, the second of three international Mars probes expected to depart planet Earth this month.

Kicking off a nearly seven-month journey, Chinas Tianwen 1 spacecraft lifted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern Chinas Hainan province at 0441 GMT (12:41 p.m. Beijing time) on top of a Long March 5 rocket, the heaviest launcher in the countrys inventory.

A live video feed streamed by amateur spectators near the launch site showed the Long March 5 rocket climbing away from the Wenchang spaceport. Ten rocket engines fueled by kerosene and liquid hydrogen powered the 57-meter tall Long March 5 into a sunny midday sky, and the rocket quickly receded from view in the unofficial online video feed.

Chinese state media did not broadcast the mission live or publicize the exact launch time in advance, but airspace and maritime notices warning pilots and sailors to steer clear of downrange drop zones suggested the Long March 5 was scheduled to lift off Thursday.

Chinese authorities lifted the news blackout on the launch once the 5-tonne Tianwen 1 spacecraft was injected onto a trajectory toward Mars by the Long March 5s second stage. The China National Space Administration confirmed the Long March 5 rocket placed Tianwen 1 on the proper course toward Mars about 36 minutes after launch.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the government-owned prime contractor for Chinas space programme, declared the launch a success in a statement.

Tianwen 1 is scheduled to arrive at Mars next February after a seven-month voyage. If successful, the mission will be Chinas first probe to enter orbit around another planet.

Two-to-three months later, the Tianwen 1 orbiter will release a lander to enter the Martian atmosphere and aim for a controlled touchdown in Utopia Planitia, a broad plain in Marss northern hemisphere. Once on the surface, the lander will lower a ramp and a 240-kilogramme rover will drive onto the surface.

If China pulls off those feats according to plan, they will make China the third country to perform 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.

NASA has landed the only successful rovers on Mars to date.

The seemingly flawless launch Thursday by the Long March 5 rocket gives Chinas most powerful launcher an 80 percent success record after five flights. The Long March 5 failed on its second test flight in 2017, but has now logged three consecutive successes.

Tianwen 1 is Chinas next leap in Solar System exploration after a series of progressively complex robotic expeditions to the moon.

Most recently, China has landed two rovers on the Moon, including the first to explore the surface of the lunar far side. The next Chinese lunar mission, named Change 5, is scheduled for launch on a Long March 5 rocket late this year on a mission to return samples from the Moon.

China officially started development of the Mars mission in 2016.

It will be the countrys second attempt to reach Mars with a robotic probe, following the Yinghuo 1 orbiter, which was stranded in Earth orbit after launch as a piggyback payload on Russias failed Phobos-Grunt mission.

Benefiting from the engineering heritage of Chinas lunar exploration programme,the Chinese national strategy set Mars as the next target for planetary exploration, wrote Wan Weixing, chief scientist of Chinas Mars exploration programme, in a paper published this month by the science journal Nature Astronomy. Chinas first Mars mission is named Tianwen 1, and aims to complete orbiting, landing and roving in one mission.

Wan died in May after a long illness.

Chinese officials announced the Tianwen name for the countrys planetary missions in April. The name Tianwen comes from the work of ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan, meaning quest for heavenly truth, according to the China National Space Administration, or CNSA, the countrys space agency.

The countrys first Martian probe will conduct scientific investigations about the Martian soil, geological structure, environment, atmosphere, as well as water, CNSA said in a statement.

After reaching Mars in February, the Tianwen 1 spacecraft will initially enter a long-period capture orbit around the Red Planet. The orbiter will eventually settle in a loop around Mars ranging between 265 kilometres and nearly 12,000 kilometres over the Martian poles.

As soon as next April, the lander and rover modules will detach from the orbiter to begin a descent through the Martian atmosphere. Radar soundings from orbit have indicated the presence of a reservoir of ice containing as much water as Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, in the Utopia Planitia region targeted by Tianwen 1s lander.

The Tianwen 1 orbiter is designed to operate for at least one Martian year, or about two years on Earth. The solar-powered rover, fitted with six wheels for mobility, has a life expectancy of at least 90 days, Chinese officials said.

Chinese scientists say the Tianwen 1 mission will perform a global survey of Mars, measuring soil and rock composition, searching for signs of buried water ice, and studying the Martian magnetosphere and atmosphere. The orbiter and rover will also observe Martian weather and probe Marss internal structure.

The orbiters seven instruments include a:

The Tianwen 1 rover is cocooned inside a heat shield for a fiery descent to the Martian surface. After releasing from the orbiter mothership, the lander will enter the red planets atmosphere, deploy a parachute, then fire a braking rocket to slow down for landing.

Tianwen 1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter, Wan wrote in Nature Astronomy. No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way. If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.

Scientifically, Tianwen 1 is the most comprehensive mission to investigate the Martian morphology, geology, mineralogy, space environment, and soil and water-ice distribution.

The rovers six science payloads include a:

The rovers ground-penetrating radar would be one of the first science instruments of its kind to reach the surface of Mars. NASAs Perseverance rover carries a comparable instrument to scan subsurface layers of the Martian crust in search of water ice deposits.

Tianwen 1 is a Chinese-led project, but scientists and support teams from several countries have agreed to provide assistance on the mission.

Scientists from theInstitut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Plantologie, or IRAP, in France contributed to a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy instrument on the Tianwen 1 rover.

French scientists, with support from the French space agency CNES, provided guidance to their Chinese counterparts on the spectroscopy technique, which uses a laser to zap a pinhead-size portion of a rock, and a spectrometer to analyze the light given off by plasma generated by the lasers interaction with the rocks surface.

The technique allows an instrument to determine the chemical make-up of rocks on Mars.

The discussions between French and Chinese scientists were intended to maximize the quality of the data produced by the Tianwen 1 rover, according to Agnes Cousin, a planetary scientist at IRAP who worked with Chinese researchers developing the rovers instruments.

French scientists from the same research institute helped develop the ChemCam instrument on NASAs Curiosity rover and the SuperCam payload set for launch 30 July on NASAs Perseverance Mars rover. ChemCam and SuperCam use the same Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy technique as the Tianwen 1 rover.

Researchers from France provided a norite calibration target to fly on the Tianwen 1 rover. Its similar to a unit on NASAs Curiosity rover used to calibrate ChemCams measurements by turning the instrument on a target like the rock norite with a known composition.

The SuperCam instrument on NASAs Perseverance rover will us a different type rock as a calibration target, but Cousin said scientists at her lab in France will still be able to cross-calibrate measurements from Curiosity, Perseverance, and the Tianwen 1 rover.

Scientists from the Space Research Institute at the Austrian Academy of Sciences assisted in the development of the magnetometer on the Tianwen 1 orbiter and helped calibrate the flight instrument.

Argentina is home to a Chinese-owned deep space tracking antenna that will be used to communicate with Tianwen 1 after launch. The European Space Agency has agreed to provide communications time for Tianwen 1 on its own worldwide network of deep space tracking stations, and help with the probes navigation on the journey to Mars.

The launch of the Tianwen 1 Mars mission Thursday occurred less than four days after the launch of the Hope Mars probe developed by the United Arab Emirates, and a week before NASAs Perseverance Mars rover is scheduled for blastoff.

The ever-changing positions of the planets only allow for missions to make a direct trip from Earth to Mars once every 26 months or so. The Mars launch window opened this year in mid-July and extends until mid-August.

While NASA and US scientists are aiding the UAEs Hope Mars orbiter, NASA has no such role on Chinas Tianwen 1 mission. NASAs Deep Space Network, which provides tracking and communications coverage for numerous US and international space probes, has not been called up to support Tianwen 1s voyage to Mars.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated China on the successful launch Thursday.

With todays launch, China is on its way to join the community of international scientific explorers at Mars, Bridenstine tweeted. The United States, Europe, Russia, India, and soon the UAE will welcome you to Mars to embark on an exciting year of scientific discovery. Safe travels Tianwen-1!

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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China launches robotic mission to orbit, land, and drive on Mars - Astronomy Now Online

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