China launches first Tianwen-1 orbiter-lander-rover mission to Mars today; CNSA yet to confirm success

The launch is an open secret, with CNSA not particularly hiding the relevant information but not being very forthcoming with it either.


China's first interplanetary Mars mission, Tianwen-1, has launched today, 23 July 202o at 10.12 am IST.

China's largest carrier rocket, the Long March 5, lifted off with the Tianwen-1 spacecraft from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island in southern China.

While the launch has been confirmed by local news media, a final word of confirmation on the mission's successful launch is still awaited from the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA).

The mission compromises of a Mars orbiter, rover, and lander, weighing a total of (including fuel) about 5 tonnes. The spacecraft is expected to reach Mars around February 2021, after which the scientific observation phase will begin in April 2021. The lander and rover will perform a soft landing on Utopia Planitia, around two to three months after it arrives at Mars. Utopia Planitia a large plain in the largest crater - Utopia - on Mars.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has named the mission 'Tianwen-1' after a poem by a popular ancient poet in Chinese history, Qu Yuan.

In the poem, Yuan raises questions about stars and other celestial bodies. The Tianwen-1 mission's name is inspired by references made to 'Heavenly Questions' or 'Questions to Heaven' asked in Yuan's poem.

 China launches first Tianwen-1 orbiter-lander-rover mission to Mars today; CNSA yet to confirm success

Artist’s impression of the Tianwen-1 mission that is a combination of orbiter, lander and rover. Image credit: Nature

The launch of the Tianwen-1 is an open secret, with CNSA not particularly hiding the relevant information but not being very forthcoming with it either.

This will be the second interplanetary mission to launch this year, after the United Arab Emirates successfully launched their Hope Probe on 20 July. All space agencies are taking advantage of a window of time between 14 July and 12 August 2020, where Mars and Earth are in close proximity. This gives the agencies a relatively long launch window in case of any last-minute technical emergencies or issues.

China launches third Long March-5 rocket in Hainan province on Friday evening, 27 December 2019. Image: ANI

China launches third Long March-5 rocket in Hainan province on Friday evening, 27 December 2019. Image: ANI

One Martian year is equal to almost two years on Earth i.e. Mars takes two Earth years to complete one orbit around the sun. It is only once every two years that the two planets come into perfect alignment with each other around the Sun. This alignment is the ideal time for an Earth-Mars journey since it saves on time, money and fuel.

China's unsuccessful past attempts to reach Mars

According to The New York Times, in 2011, China tried to reach Mars but failed. The Chinese space agency had paired its orbiter Yinghuo-1 along with Russias mission to study Phobos, one of the two tiny Martian moons.

The Russian rocket carrying both the spacecraft malfunctioned a little after launch, and it couldn’t escape the Earth's gravity. Both spacecraft eventually burned up in the atmosphere.


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