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Chinese spacecraft becomes second to reach Mars orbit this month

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China has become the sixth nation to ever reach Mars, after its dual orbiter and lander Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully entered the planet’s orbit.

Tianwen-1, which means “quest for heavenly truth”, took off last July from Hainan Island off the south coast of China with hundreds of onlookers watching from a nearby beach.

And after seven months in space, it reached the Red Planet’s orbit at 11.52am UK time on Wednesday.

The Chinese spacecraft is the second of three space missions due to reach Mars this month, following the UAE’s space probe Hope that entered orbit on Tuesday, and they will be followed by NASA’s Perseverance rover.

Everything you need to know about this month's three Mars missions

Everything you need to know about this month’s three Mars missions

EXPLAINER

Tianwen-1 has both an orbital section, which will remain in space, and a lander – although the lander won’t attempt to reach solid Martian ground until May.

Once there, it plans to search for underground water and evidence of possible ancient life forms.

According to the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the mission is the country’s first to explore Mars and is successfully orbiting the planet for monitoring purposes ahead of the attempted landing at a site on Utopia Planitia – a plain which is the largest known impact basin there.

NASA detected possible signs of ice at the site, according to an article in Nature Astronomy by mission chief engineer Wan Weixing, who died in May last year after having cancer.

To enter into Martian orbit, the spacecraft had to perform a challenging braking manoeuvre to decelerate and be captured by the planet’s gravity. This went successfully, according to the CNSA.

Before entering orbit – at a distance of about 2.2m kilometres from Mars – the craft captured a monochrome image of the planet.

A monochrome image of Mars snapped by China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft. Pic: CNSA
Image:
A monochrome image of Mars snapped by China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft. Pic: CNSA

Once the 240kg solar-powered device touches down on Mars it will operate for around three months, looking for biomolecules and biosignatures in the soil, while the orbiter is due to last two years.

The launch is China’s second attempt at heading to Mars.

Only the US has successfully landed a spacecraft on the Red Planet, doing it eight times since 1976.

More than half of the craft sent there have either blown up, burned up or crashed into the surface, including China’s last attempt – in collaboration with Russia – in 2011.

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