China’s Sino-Martian space mission in July is set to be a pioneering cosmological landmark
Space, and its navigation, connects to a specific timetable largely based on planetary movements. Thus, one doesn’t just fly to space so much as wait until space is ready to receive you. For example, flights to Mars can only happen once every 36 months, when the Red Planet comes closest to Earth during its revolutions, at a distance of 55 million kilometres. Although the coronavirus has stymied the best-laid plans for many a nation hoping to blast off for Mars in the July/August window of opportunity this year, China, first-in and last-out from the claws of COVID-19, has emerged ahead of the pack. In terms of ambition, Beijing’s project is light years ahead.
In April, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced that its upcoming robotic mission to the Red Planet is named Tianwen-1. The name, borrowed from an ancient Chinese verse by poet Qu Yuan of the Kingdom of Chu (475BCE–221BCE), means “quest for heavenly truth”. In the work, written in verse, Qu Yuan raised questions about the sky, the stars, natural phenomena, myths and even the real world.
The mission, scheduled to launch on a Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang in July and arrive on Mars in February 2021, is groundbreaking in its scope. Tianwen-1 will not only deploy an orbiter above Mars, but also deposit a lander and a rover on the Martian surface. The mission is designed to study the composition of the Martian atmosphere, as well as contribute to the ongoing search for past and present life. It will be the first mission in space history to complete orbiting, landing and roving on the Red Planet in one mission.
“The rover will have six wheels and four solar panels, carry 13 scientific instruments, weigh more than 200 kilograms and work for three months on the planet,” explains Sun Zezhou, the probe’s chief designer at the China Academy of Space Technology. Ye Peijian, one of the academy’s leading scientists, who’s known as the “father of the Chang’e probes”, says that while the launch should reach Mars by February 2021, the probe may not land on the Martian surface before July 2021.
In addition, 2020 heralds the 50th anniversary of China’s first entry into space, having launched its first satellite, Dongfanghong I, into space on April 24, 1970. Illustrating just how far the programme has come, in a recent cosmological first, CNSA landed the Chang’e-4 lander probe with a Yutu-2 rover on the moon in 2019, marking the first mission to touch down on the far side of the lunar surface. It’s an ongoing mission that’s providing unprecedented access to an unknown part of the universe. As of May 1, Yutu-2 had driven 447.68 metres on the far side and became the longest-working lunar rover on the moon.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) says this is a busy year, with the number of space launches (including the Mars probe and a new Chang’e-5 lunar probe) expected to exceed 40. China’s space launches over the past two years ranked first in the world – with 27 launches in 2019 alone, sending 68 satellites into space.
Zhang Kejian, CNSA’s director, says that the administration is “willing to work together with the international community to make new and greater contributions to exploring the mysteries of the universe, and promoting human welfare on the basis of equality, mutual benefit, peaceful utilisation and inclusive development.” As the media maxim has it: watch this space.
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