EXPLAINER: What is China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission?

Guo Rui in Guangzhou, South China Morning Post

Posted at May 16 2021 09:42 AM | Updated as of May 16 2021 01:04 PM

The landing of the Zhu Rong rover on Mars is a milestone for China's space programme, signalling advances in the country's technology. China is the third country to achieve such a feat.

What is the Tianwen programme?

The Tianwen-1 probe carrying the Zhu Rong rover lifted off from a launchpad in the southern province of Hainan on July 23 last year. On February 10, the probe went into orbit around Mars, becoming the first Chinese satellite to do so. It spent the next three months or so circling the red planet in the lead-up to Saturday's landing. The China National Space Administration said the goal of the Tianwen programme was to explore the surface and geology of the planet as well as its magnetic field, soil composition and atmosphere.

What is the next stage for the rover?

The rover is expected to spend the next three months roaming the surface, sending back photos and data of the site. The Tianwen-1 probe remains in orbit and will act as a relay satellite, sending signals to and from Earth. Once the rover's mission is completed, the orbiter will spend up to two years on other space exploration tasks.

What does the Mars landing mean for China?

The landing on Saturday makes China the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to achieve such a feat. State news agency Xinhua said the mission represented advances for China in launch, interplanetary flight and communications technology.

What does Tianwen mean?

The name literally means "asking the sky" and refers to a poem by Qu Yuan from the Warring States Period (475-221BC), in which he asks questions in pursuit of truth. The rover Zhu Rong is named after the Chinese god of fire, and symbolises the use of fire to bring light. It echoes the Chinese word for Mars, which translates as "fire star".

What other space missions has China been working on?

China has conducted five missions to the moon since 2007, landing on the far side of the moon for the first time in 2018. Last year, a Chinese probe brought back the first lunar sample in 40 years. China also plans to have its own space station up and running next year.

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