Tianwen-1, China's first spacecraft designed to explore Mars, has successfully reached the red planet on Wednesday, February 10, 2021, one day after the United Arab Emirates' Hope spacecraft. In three months, China will attempt to drop a lander and rover to the Martian surface.
"Successfully reaching Mars’s orbit is one of the mission’s key challenges," said Li Chunlai, deputy chief designer of the Mars exploration program based in Beijing.
In orbit, Tianwen-1 will start taking precise images of the landing area called Utopia Planitia, which is close to the large volcano Elysium Mones-- where domes and other landforms have been found and could be linked to the presence of water.
The mission also aims to discover whether an ancient ocean existed in the planet's northern region, stated Li, as well as study the geological evolution of the volcanoes there.
Tianwen-1 will test the technologies China requires for a sample-return mission planned for later this decade, said David Flannery, an astrobiologist at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. The longer-term goals include sending people to the red planet, he added.
According to Roberto Orosei, a planetary scientist at the Institute of Radioastronomy of Bologna in Italy, a subsurface radar aboard the orbiter will help researchers examine structures below Mars’s polar ice caps.
Europe’s Mars Express, an orbiter that has been around Mars since 2003, previously discovered water below the surface of the southern polar cap.
Orosei said with Tianwen-1's radar, which can probe structures more than 100 m (328 feet) the surface and frequencies that past missions have not been able to study, scientists may finally be able to explain how the buried lakes remained liquid.
Tianwen-1 was the second spacecraft to arrive at Mars in two days, following United Arab Emirates' Hope -- which reached orbit on February 9.
Hope made UAE the fifth country to successfully reach Mars. It is a part of the first interplanetary mission by any Arab state.
Hope launched in July 2020, the same as Tianwen-1 and NASA's Perseverance rover -- the biggest and most complex rover ever sent to Mars. The rover is expected to land on February 18.
Featured image: Still shot from footage outlining the Tianwen-1 mission. Credit: WikiMedia