This week, China will launch its Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. The name translates to “questions to heaven,” taken from a poem by ancient poet Qu Yuan. This mission could make China the third country to land on our neighboring planet. Only the United States and Russia have succeeded so far. This is merely the second time Chinese scientists have attempted to reach Mars, after a failed launch in 2018.
Tianwen-1 is set to launch on July 23, though dates are subject to change. It will arrive at the red planet in February 2021. The launch will take place at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.
China’s launch is one of three missions to Mars occurring this month. On July 14, the United Arab Emirates sent its Hope orbiter to space for an in-depth look at Mars’ atmosphere. NASA’s Perseverance rover will also launch on July 30. The three missions are all taking advantage of a month-long window where Earth’s and Mars’ orbits line up. During this window, a trip to Mars takes the least amount of time and fuel.
The Tianwen-1 mission will include an orbiter, lander and rover. The first will stay in orbit around the planet and assess the entire landscape from its birds’-eye view. Then after two or three months, it will send down the lander with the rover. The rover will be able to conduct more detailed explorations of areas of interest identified by the orbiter. The rover will roam for about 90 (Earth) days.
Overall, Tianwen-1 will explore every aspect of Mars’ environment. This includes the composition of the atmosphere and soil, the gravitational and magnetic fields, and the locations of water or ice. This is all in service of two objectives: to learn about possible life on Mars in the past and to determine if humans could live on Mars in the future.
Tianwen-1 is only one step in China’s plan for deep space exploration. Last year’s Chang’e 4 mission put a rover on the far side of the moon. Already, a second Mars mission is planned for 2028, followed by explorations of Jupiter and the asteroid belt in 2030. This is just the beginning for China’s space program.