If everything is going to plan, a flotilla of spacecraft is arriving at Mars about now. The fleet includes a rover sent by the United States and an orbiter by the United Arab Emirates.
Another is a combination orbiter, lander, and rover sent by China. The mission is known as Tianwen 1. The name comes from an ancient Chinese poem, and means “heavenly questions.” The craft was launched in July. After entering orbit, it’ll spend a couple of months checking out possible landing sites before its lander and rover are dispatched to the surface.
The orbiter will study the Red Planet on its own. It’ll map the surface, watch the atmosphere, and plot the location of water ice across the planet.
The lander and rover will touch down in Utopia Planitia — a low-lying plain that’s well north of the equator. Scientists are considering a couple of sites within a wide landing zone. Pictures from the orbiter will help them make the final choice.
On the surface, the Tianwen lander will monitor the Martian weather. It’ll also deploy the rover, which will sniff around for evidence of current or past life. It’ll use radar to probe for water ice below the surface, and measure the weak magnetic field impressed in the Martian rocks.
A successful touchdown would make China only the second country to place a working lander and rover on Mars, after the United States — and add to our knowledge of this intriguing world.
Script by Damond Benningfield