China: Tianwen-1 passes Mars as it enters orbit

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China’s Zhurong rover will dive into the Martian atmosphere tonight (May 14), nearly 10 months after blasting off into space. The rover is targetting a landing site in the solar system’s biggest impact crater, a region known as the Utopia Planitia. If all goes according to plan, the rover will survive a tense “seven minutes of terror” and China will join an exclusive club of nations that have placed a rover on Mars.

To date, the US space agency NASA and the Soviet Union are the only space powers to touch down on the Red Planet in one piece.

However, China is the sixth country after the US, Soviet Union, European Space Agency (ESA), India and United Arab Emirates (UAE) to have an orbiter around Mars.

China’s Tianwen 1 probe entered a stable orbit of Mars on February 10 this year after launching on July 23, 2020, from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan.

The Tianwen probe is now expected to release the Zhurong lander tonight over the planet’s northern hemisphere.

What time is China’s Zhurong rover landing on Mars?

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) confirmed on Friday the rover will attempt to land “in next few days”.

The earliest date the rover could touch down is in the wee morning hours of Saturday, May 15, local time.

Accounting for the time difference between the UK and China indicates the rover could attempt its landing just before or after midnight tonight.

However, China’s window of opportunity will stay open until Wednesday, May 19.

Tianwen-1: China's Mars mission discussed by expert

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CNSA said: “China’s first Mars exploration mission, Tianwen-1 probe has functioned normally since its successful launch on July 23, 2020.

“On February 10, 2021, Tianwen-1 probe entered the Martian orbit for scientific exploration and huge amount of scientific data are available up to date.

“With the evaluation of the flight status, Tianwen-1 probe is scheduled to perform landing campaign targeting Utopia Planitia at the proper slot from the early morning of May 15 to May 19 Beijing time.”

The rover will fall towards the ground for about seven minutes, surrounded by a protective shell.

NASA’s flight engineers call this dive the “seven minutes of terror” because there is no communication between the rover and mission control.

Due to the sheer distances involved – some 200 million miles – signals beamed from Mars will take up to 18 minutes to reach the planet.

In other words, China’s space agency will not know whether the rover has landed or crashed until well after the fact.

Describing the Curiosity rover’s dive towards Mars in 2012, NASA’s Tom Rivellini said: “Entry, descent and landing, also known as EDL, is referred to as the seven minutes of terror.

“Because we’ve got literally seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars- going from 13,000 miles an hour to zero, in perfect sequence, perfect choreography, perfect timing.

“And the computer has to do it all by itself, with no help from the ground.”

China’s rover is pencilled in to explore the Red Planet for at least 90 days, but as past missions have shown, Mars rovers tend to live for many years past their use-by date.

In many ways, Zhurong resembles NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, both of which landed in 2004.

The rover will study how the planet’s surface has changed throughout history.

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