China's Tianwen-1 expected to reach Mars orbit next month

South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 05 2021 12:19 PM

China's Tianwen-1 expected to reach Mars orbit next month 1
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars projected into point perspective, a view similar to that which one would see from a spacecraft. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

China's first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, has now travelled more than 400 million km (249 million miles) and is expected to reach the red planet's orbit in February.

The probe, which has been travelling for 163 days since its launch in July, is about 130 million km from Earth, the China National Space Administration said in a statement on Sunday night. The distance travelled was more than 400 million km after it performed a series of orbital maneuvers as it moved away from Earth's orbit and approached the red planet.

According to the space agency, Tianwen-1 has so far carried out three orbital corrections as well as equipment tests. It said the probe remained in good condition as it continued on its journey to Mars - still 8.3 million km away.

If it successfully reaches the red planet's orbit next month as scheduled, it will be 190 million km from Earth and will have travelled more than 500 million km to get there.

It is due to land on Mars in May and will release a rover for scientific exploration that is expected to operate for about 90 Martian days, which are slightly longer than their equivalent on Earth.

Tianwen-1, which translates as "Heavenly Questions", is named after a work by one of China's greatest poets, Qu Yuan (340-278BC).

Two other probes are also on their way to the red planet - the United Arab Emirates' first Mars mission, Hope, and the US Perseverance rover. All three missions were launched in July last year.

The Tianwen-1 mission is part of China's ambitious space program, which includes plans for a permanent space station. Most recently, its Chang'e 5 spacecraft returned to Earth in December after retrieving 1.73kg (3.8lb) of rock samples from the moon - making it the first country to do so since the US and Soviet missions in the 1960s and '70s.

China said last month it would launch the core module of its first permanent space station in spring, to be constructed over 11 missions in the next two years and completed by 2022.

"It's the first time for us to establish a space station that is so big," Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, told state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday.

"We will launch the cargo carrier and the personnel carrier, respectively, after the core module goes into in-orbit operation," he said. "We will further verify the key technology of the space station, which includes technology that will allow our astronauts to conduct activities outside the spacecraft."

Astronauts are already in training for the Tiangong Space Station project and will carry out retrieval missions and test in-orbit technologies, according to the CCTV report.

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