China to attempt high-stakes landing on Mars

·3 min read
Visitors admire an exhibition depicting rovers on Mars in Beijing - AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Visitors admire an exhibition depicting rovers on Mars in Beijing - AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

China is holding its breath as its Zhurong rover is scheduled to be landed on Mars imminently, which will mark a significant victory for Beijing in its increasingly bold space programme.

The Tianwen-1 mission, which translates as “questions to heaven”, launched in July 2020 and will be China’s first independent spacecraft to reach the red planet.

The vessel entered the Martian orbit in February this year and is now preparing for its final touchdown as it approaches a vast northern lava plain known as Utopia Planitia, the Chinese Space Agency said Friday.

At a press conference in March, Bao Weimin, the director of China’s Science and Technology Committee of the Aerospace Science and Technology Group, said that Tianwen-1 was orbiting at a speed of 4.8 kilometres per second and that its indicators and instruments were “working normally”.

In the upcoming days, the Chinese spacecraft will release a capsule carrying the lander and rover as it plummets through the Martian atmosphere and deploys a parachute before approaching the surface of the Red Planet.

The vessel will then release a ramp for the six-wheeled, solar-powered Zhurong rover - which is named after a Chinese fire god - to roll down onto Martian soil, where rock samples will be collected for 90 Martian days.

According to Ye Peijian, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the rover was projected to land in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The complicated landing process has been called the "seven minutes of terror" because it happens faster than radio signals can reach Earth from Mars, meaning communications are limited.

If successful, China will become the third nation to safely touch down on Mars, after Russia and the US, and the first country to carry out an orbiting, landing and roving operation during its first mission to Mars.

Scientists are particularly excited about the possible detection of permafrost in the northern hemispheric region of Mars, where Tianwen-1 will land, as part of its observation into the high atmospheric levels.

As with previous spacecraft, the vessel includes high and medium resolution cameras that will capture the structure and composition of the red planet’s surface.

The most recent successful arrival was in February when Nasa landed its ‘Perseverance’ rover on the planet and has since been exploring. The highly anticipated landing has only been accomplished by half the spacecraft that have attempted the mission.

Several US, Russian and European attempts to land rovers on Mars have failed in the past, most recently in 2016 with the crash-landing of the Schiaparelli joint Russian-European spacecraft.

China views its Mars programme as a big win, as it bolsters its space exploration capabilities and attempts to become more technologically self-sufficient.

The country is catching up in a space race between its competitors in the United States and Russia, both countries equipped with astronauts and cosmonauts with decades of experience in space exploration.

The mission follows China’s successful mission to receive rock and soil samples from the moon — which scientists believe to be extremely challenging, particular for a country that lacks significant experience in space.

In addition, the country’s Tiangong space station is set to enter the construction phase as the Tianwen-1 completes its exploration of Mars.

Beijing has high hopes for the space station to be fully crewed by 2022 and plans to send humans to the Moon shortly afterwards.

Additional reporting by Wen Xu in Beijing