China has now achieved something that only the US and (for a limited while) the Soviet Union had previously accomplished: a successful landing on Mars. A Chinese craft dubbed Tianwen-1 orbited the planet since February and sent a landing vehicle on a perilous drop to its surface, where it landed on Saturday.
The land rover-carrying vehicle joined three NASA spacecraft that were already studying the planet. The Chinese Mars mission may not be as exciting as NASA’s latest because it is effectively replicating achievements that the Americans performed decades ago, but it is another step toward China’s goal of becoming a “great space power,” as its leader, Xi Jinping, described it last month.
There are more potential milestones on the horizon. Here’s everything you need to know about them.
In January 2019, China was the first country to land a probe on the moon’s far side — the one that always faces away from Earth. After a successful moon landing in 2013, this was China’s second successful moon landing.
That same year, it landed a rover on the moon’s surface, which is still operational today, far beyond the three months it was supposed to last. According to a report on Chinese state television, it had traveled nearly half a mile from its starting point in the Von Kármán crater near the moon’s southern pole as of late April.
China sent a new spacecraft to the moon in December. It retrieved about 4 pounds of rocks and soil near Mons Rümker, bringing them back to Earth for the first time since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. With tremendous excitement, some of the samples were displayed in public in Beijing.
Chang’e, a moon goddess in Chinese mythology, is named after China’s moon probes. According to statements from China’s space agency, three more are planned by 2027, including more rovers, a flying probe, and even a proposed experiment in 3D printing in space.
The missions are intended to build the groundwork for a lunar outpost and future visits by astronauts, or taikonauts, in the 2030s. Only the Apollo programs in the United States have put people on the moon thus far.
Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced in March that it would collaborate with China on the construction of a lunar research outpost, though the countries have yet to define their plans.
A Competitor Space Station
The launch of the main module for China’s newest orbiting space station in April attracted more international attention than intended – for all the wrong reasons. The primary rocket booster fell ominously down to Earth after reaching space, in what is known as a “uncontrolled reentry.”
The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and prompting criticism of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5B, launch procedures.
In any case, more launches like it are on the way. The mission was the first of eleven that will be required to complete China’s third and most ambitious space station by the end of 2022.
Additional modules will be carried by two more Long March 5B rockets, while smaller sections will be launched by other types. After more than four years, Chinese astronauts will return to space on four missions, one of which is scheduled for June.
The first two Chinese space stations were prototypes that only lasted a few months, but this one is expected to last a decade or more. Xi, the Chinese leader, linked it to Mao Zedong’s exhortation to produce a nuclear weapon, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile, and launch a satellite into orbit, which related to China’s race to create a nuclear weapon, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile, and launch a satellite.
It is being hailed as proof of China’s prowess in space, as are all of the Communist Party’s triumphs.
The International Space Station, which was jointly created by the US, Russia, and others, is approaching the end of its planned life in 2024. It’s unknown what happens next. NASA has recommended keeping the station operational for a few more years, while Russia has stated that it will leave by 2025.
If the station is terminated, China’s might be the only game in town for a while.
The station, which will be called Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” like the first two, will be able to accommodate three astronauts for long-term missions and up to six for shorter trips. China has chosen an astronaut crew of 18 people, some of them are civilians (only one is a woman). The first three are expected to spend three months in space, breaking the 33-day record set by Chinese astronauts in 2016.
The director of China’s Manned Space Agency, Hao Chun, told state media that astronauts from other countries would be permitted to visit, whether on Chinese or their own spacecraft, but they would need a docking mechanism “in line with Chinese requirements,” which differ from those on the International Space Station. He said that some foreign astronauts were already studying Mandarin as part of their training.
Mars and Beyond
China’s Mars mission, dubbed Tianwen (“Questions to Heaven”) after a classic poem, is attempting to complete a trifecta of feats accomplished by NASA over a number of years in one go. It has safely placed a craft on the planet’s surface after reaching orbit around it. The next step is to launch a rover, which is scheduled to happen in the coming days.
The Soviet Union was the first country to land a craft on Mars in 1971, but the lander stopped communicating seconds later, most likely due to a sandstorm. It transmitted a single incomplete or indecipherable image. Several other attempts to reach the surface by various countries have since failed.
Only the United States has successfully landed on Mars before Saturday, with eight landings in all, the most recent being the Perseverance rover in February. (In 2011, China attempted to launch an orbiter to Mars, but the Russian rocket carrying it failed to escape orbit, and both plummeted back to Earth.)
The Tianwen orbiter from China has been surveying Mars and the landing site of NASA’s Viking 2 in 1976, Utopia Planitia, a huge basin in the northern hemisphere.
The Chinese rover, dubbed Zhurong after a fire god, will carry out a series of experiments to learn more about the planet’s terrain, geology, and atmosphere. One goal is to gain a better understanding of the ice distribution in the region, which could, in theory, assist sustain future human visits.
China has stated that it intends to send a second lander to Mars by 2028, with the goal of returning samples from the planet. NASA and the European Space Agency are already developing it, with the goal of returning dirt and rocks collected by Perseverance to Earth in 2031. China’s mission might take place this decade, laying the stage for a possible race.
China is also considering a single, 10-year trip to gather a sample from an asteroid and pass by a comet, in addition to the prospect of a future crewed journey to Mars. It has also proposed Venus and Jupiter orbiters. It wants to build an orbiting observatory in 2024 that will be similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.