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2020 is an optimal year for Mars missions, given the close distance between Earth and Mars. This opportunity occurs every 26 months, enabling us to send probes to the Red Planet with less time and less fuel. Consequently, there are three Mars missions planned for mid-July through August: the U.S. Perseverance Mars rover mission, the UAE’s Al-Amal (Hope Mars orbiter probe), and China’s Tianwen1 (Heavenly Questions) orbiter, lander, and rover Mars mission.

China’s first Mars orbiter mission, Yinghou-1, launched on the Russian rocket Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft in 2011, failed to leave Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and fell back onto the Pacific Ocean. Thereafter, China officially launched its independent Mars mission in 2016, named Tianwen-1 after one of China’s ancient poems. China National Space Administration (CNSA) Director Zhang Kejian indicated that Chinese space scientists have overcome difficult technical problems, steadfastly solving them by independent innovation and self-reliance for its upcoming Mars mission.

In November 2019, China successfully carried out a simulated test of its Mars mission at its trial site for testing extraterrestrial missions in Huailai county, north China’s Hebei province. That trial run replicated the Martian gravity and tested hovering and landing on the planet’s surface. The chief designer of China’s Mars exploration mission, Zhang Rongqiao, highlighted the difficulty of a Martian landing: “The natural environment of Mars is very different from that of Earth in many aspects, among which the Martian gravitational acceleration is only about one-third of that of Earth. In order to simulate the landing procedure under the gravitational acceleration of Mars, we have constructed this whole facility [at Hebei].”

Why is China investing in a Mars mission, and how does it relate to its long-term space strategy and goals?

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Category: Science