China’s Tianwen-1 joins the party at Mars with Perseverance on the way

An artist’s impression of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars rover, expected to reach the red planet’s surface in the May timeframe. The Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander and rover braked into Mars orbit on 10 February. Image: CGTN

China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully slipped into orbit around Mars’ poles on 10 February, capping a seven-month journey with a 15-minute rocket firing that slowed the craft enough for capture by the red planet’s gravity. The spacecraft’s arrival came one day after United Arab Emirates successfully put its Hope probe into an equatorial orbit to study the martian atmosphere.

Tianwen-1 is a much more ambitious spacecraft, an orbiter equipped with state-of-the-art remote sensing instruments and a small lander that’s expected to carry a six-wheel rover to the surface in May. Chinese news agencies did not carry the Mars orbit insertion burn live, but they confirmed success a few minutes after the fact.

Tianwen-1 and Hope have joined a fleet of eight other operational spacecraft in and around Mars, including NASA’s InSight lander, the Curiosity rover and six other orbiters, three sent by NASA, two by the European Space Agency and one from India.

NASA’s $2.4 billion Perseverance rover will boost the total to nine on 18 February when the spacecraft plunges into the martian atmosphere and descends to a landing in Jezero Crater. Perseverance will look for signs of past microbial life and cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth. It also will deploy an experimental helicopter to test the feasibility of powered flight in the thin atmosphere.