China’s first interplanetary probe is now so close to Mars that its camera can make out craters across the red planet’s surface.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, a suite of robots launched by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in July, has spent the last six months speeding through space. At just 2.2 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) from its destination, the probe beamed back its very first photo: a black-and-white snapshot of Mars.
The CNSA released the picture on Friday. In a press release, the agency said that the probe had fired an engine as part of its fourth “orbital correction,” or adjustment of its path through space. Now Martian gravity should pull the mission into just the right orbit around the planet.
The five-ton probe is set to carry out a braking operation to slow its high-speed spaceflight and slip into orbit around Mars on February 10. Following that, the spacecraft will spend a couple months surveying a landing site at Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock.
The orbiter is supposed to drop a lander-rover combo to the planet’s surface in May, the CNSA said. If the rocket-powered descent goes smoothly, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp for the rover to roll onto Martian soil. The rover’s radar system will help Chinese researchers seek out underground pockets of liquid water. (The orbiter, meanwhile, will continue circling the red planet and relaying data to Earth.)
Such ancient water reservoirs could be remnants of a time billions of years ago when Mars flowed with rivers, courtesy of a much thicker and protective atmosphere than exists today. During this era, Mars somewhat resembled Earth, and scientists think it may have hosted alien microbial life. Any underground pockets of water, shielded from the sun’s unfiltered radiation and the vacuum of space, might still harbor such species, if they exist.
If successful, Tianwen-1 will be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into orbit, drop a landing platform, and deploy a rover all in one expedition. It will also mark China’s first landing on another planet and help the nation prepare a future mission that might return a Martian rock or dirt sample to Earth in the late 2020s.
As of Friday, the CNSA said Tianwen-1 is just about 1.1 million kilometers (680,000 miles) from its destination.
Two other missions which launched around the same time as Tianwen-1 — NASA’s Perseverance rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe — are also arriving at Mars in the next two weeks. All three missions are taking advantage of a window when Mars passes close to Earth, decreasing travel time and cost.
China attempted to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011, but the Russian spacecraft that was meant to carry it there stalled in Earth’s orbit and never left.
Tianwen-1 is the closest China has ever gotten to another planet. With luck — and the right engineering to weather a harrowing “seven minutes of terror” as it plunges toward Mars — it will reach the surface.