Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Chinese spacecraft lands on Mars

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An unmanned Chinese spacecraft landed on Mars on Saturday, making China only the second country after the US to successfully land on the red planet.

China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft, currently in orbit around Mars, dropped its lander and rover – named Zhurong after a Chinese mythological god of fire – on the surface of the planet early on Saturday, completing a critical stage of the ongoing mission, described by Chinese state media as “extremely complicated with no ground control”.

The probe landed on a site on a vast lava plain known as Utopia Planitia, “leaving a Chinese footprint on Mars for the first time”, official news agency Xinhua reported.

The entry, descent and landing (EDL) took around nine minutes, during which the speed of the craft was reduced from 20,000km per hour to zero, the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) , the developer of the lander-rover combo of Tianwen-1, told Chinese state media.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) said in a statement that its rover Zhurong had successfully landed on Mars after “nine minutes of terror”, which is how Nasa describes the time interval when scientists on Earth have no control over the rover because of communication delays.

Tianwen-1, consisting of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, was launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the coast of southern China’s Hainan island on July 23, 2020.

Tracking the course of the spacecraft, the Xinhua report said that in the early hours of Saturday, the spacecraft began to descend from its parking orbit, and the entry capsule enclosing the lander and rover separated from the orbiter at about 4am.

“After flying for approximately three hours, the entry capsule hurtled towards the red planet and entered the Mars atmosphere at an altitude of 125km, initiating the riskiest phase of the whole mission,” the report added.

Around 100 metres above the planet’s surface, the craft hovered to identify obstacles and measured the slopes of the surface. “Avoiding the obstacles, it selected a relatively flat area and descended slowly, touching down safely with its four buffer legs.

“Earlier, research showed the landing site might be the edge of an ancient ocean or lake in the early history of Mars. Chinese scientists are looking for more evidence of water-ice and will share the data with their international counterparts.”

Last month, China sent to space a key module for its permanent space station, which it plans to complete by 2022 as part of its ambitious space programme.

The module, sent to orbit by a rocket, can provide electricity, and accommodate three astronauts for up to six months.

In a commentary published on Saturday, Xinhua said China was “not looking to compete for leadership in space” but was committed to “unveiling the secrets of the universe and contributing to humanity’s peaceful use of space”.

Tianwen-1 was one of three that reached Mars in February, with US rover Perseverance touching down on February 18; Hope – the third spacecraft that arrived on Mars in February this year – is not designed to make a landing. Launched by the United Arab Emirates, it is currently orbiting above Mars gathering data on its weather and atmosphere.

“The first successful landing ever was made by Nasa’s Viking 1 in July 1976 and then by Viking 2 in September that year. A Mars probe launched by the former Soviet Union landed in December 1971, but communication was lost seconds after landing,” Reuters said in a report.

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