BEIJING (AP) – China says its Tianwen-1 spacecraft has entered a temporary parking orbit around Mars in anticipation of a rover landing on the Red Planet in the coming months.
China’s National Space Administration said the spacecraft performed a maneuver to adjust its orbit on Wednesday morning Beijing time and would stay in the new orbit for about three months before attempting to land. During this time, it will map the surface of Mars and use its cameras and other sensors to collect additional data, particularly at its potential landing site.
This follows the landing of the US rover Perseverance last Thursday near a former river delta in the Jezero crater to look for signs of ancient microscopic life.
A successful bid to land Tianwen-1 would make China the second country after the United States to place a spacecraft on Mars. China’s solar-powered vehicle, the size of a golf cart, will collect data on groundwater and search for evidence that the planet may have been home to microscopic life.
Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Quest for Heavenly Truth.”
Landing a spaceship on Mars is notoriously tricky. A dozen orbiters missed the mark. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter bound for Mars that was part of a Russian mission did not leave Earth orbit.
China’s attempt will involve a parachute, rocket fire and airbags. Its proposed landing site is a vast rocky plain called Utopia Planitia, where the American Viking 2 lander landed in 1976.
The arrival of Tianwen-1 on Mars on February 10 was preceded by that of an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates. The last three missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment between Earth and Mars that only occurs once every two years.
Tianwen-1 represents the most ambitious mission to date for China’s secret and military space program which put an astronaut into orbit around Earth in 2003 and last year brought moon rocks back to Earth for the first time. times since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spaceship on the little explored other side of the Moon in 2019.
China is also building a permanent space station and planning a manned lunar mission and a possible permanent moon research base, although no date has yet been proposed.
On Monday, a huge Long March-5B Y2 rocket was moved to the Wenchang spacecraft launch site in Hainan province to be assembled and tested before launching the space station’s core module, dubbed Tianhe. The launch is scheduled for the first half of this year, the first of 11 missions planned over the next two years for the construction of the station.
China is not participating in the International Space Station, in part at the insistence of the United States.
The space program is a source of enormous national pride in China, and Tianwen-1 has attracted a particularly strong audience. Tourists flocked to the tropical island of Hainan to watch the launch, while others visit simulated Mars colonies in desert sites with white domes, airlocks and space suits.