The China National Space Administration (CNSA) released new images from the Tianwen-1 Mars mission earlier this month, on March 4, 2021. The color image shows the north pole of Mars, and the two black-and-white images show other striking Mars surface features, acquired by a separate high-definition camera capable of revealing details as small as 23 feet (7 meters).
The Tianwen-1 orbiter captured these images at an altitude above Mars of about 211 miles (340 km). That’s comparable to the height of the International Space Station above the Earth (250 miles or 400 km).
Tianwen-1 is China’s first Mars exploration mission. It is named after an ancient Chinese poem meaning Heavenly Questions. It was launched in July 2020 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the Hainan province of China, starting up the country’s planetary exploration program. This launch took place in the same launch window in July as two other missions, United Arab Emirates’ Hope and NASA’s Perseverance. Tianwen-1 arrived into orbit around Mars on February 10, 2021, only one day after the Hope mission also successfully had entered orbit around the red planet. Perseverance arrived and landed on the surface of Mars eight days later.
China thus became the sixth nation/organization to successfully reach our red neighboring planet, after the United States, India, the former Soviet Union, Europe (via the European Space Agency) and the UAE.
Like Perseverance, the Tianwen-1 probe has a lander that carries a rover, and it is scheduled to separate from the orbiter in May or June of 2021, after three months in orbit. The lander is planned to land on a large plain called Utopia Planitia which lies within Utopia, the largest impact basin in the solar system. This is also the location where one of the earliest Mars explorer missions, Viking 2, landed in 1976. After touchdown, the lander will unfold a ramp to let the rover out, which will then roll down to Mars’ surface and begin the next part of the mission. If successful, China will be the second country ever to deploy a rover on Mars – the sixth rover after NASA’s previous five – and the third country, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union, to make a soft landing on its surface.
The Tianwen-1 rover is smaller than Perseverance and weighs about 240 kg (530 pounds), which is about a quarter of the SUV-sized Perseverance rover. It has six wheels and four solar panels, and can move at a calm speed of 200 meters per hour (a little over a tenth of a mile per hour). During the planned three months working on the surface of Mars, it will use its six instruments, which include a multispectral camera, a ground-penetrating radar and a meteorological measurer, to collect data for its science goals.
Including both the time in orbit and the time on the surface, the science goals of Tianwen-1 include mapping Mars’ geology and morphology in order to produce surface maps, looking at the composition of the Martian soil and exploring the distribution of Martian water ice. It will also look at Mars’ atmosphere, in particular the planet’s ionosphere. You can find a long list of Tianwen-1’s mission goals in this article at Nature Astronomy.
Bottom line: Images of Mars’ surface from China’s Tianwen-1 mission were released earlier this month.
Theresa Wiegert is a Swedish-Canadian astronomer with a Ph.D. in astrophysics and a master's in physics. She has loved the sky and everything in it and beyond ever since she was four years old and asked her father about the very bright star she saw one early Christmas morning. Learning it wasn’t a star but the planet Venus, she started reading anything astronomy-related she could find. Eventually she ended up as a radio astronomer, researching gas in spiral galaxies. She loves science outreach and teaching, especially showing the night sky to groups of kids (and adults!).