Tianwen-1 was launched on July 23, 2020, amid the turmoil created by the COVID-19 global pandemic. What was unique about this mission was that China tried to become the first nation to successfully send an orbiter and rover to Mars in the first attempt. After successful orbital docking and landing, Tianwen-1 was a historic victory for the CNSA and space exploration. Before Tianwen-1, the only two successful missions to send an orbiter and a lander to Mars were NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 missions in 1975. Before that, the Soviet Union had attempted this feat with Mars 2 and 3 missions in 1971 and Mars 6 in 1973; Mars 2 was a complete failure as the lander was destroyed, and the orbiter sent no data. On Mars 3, the orbiter acquired about eight months of data, returning only 20 seconds of data while the lander landed safely. On Mars 6, the orbiter produced data from an occultation experiment, but the lander failed to land.
While exploring the red planet, Tianwen-1 showed a Mars we both love and admire: dusty dunes, shield volcanoes, impact craters, and even the north pole. While the orbiter took these spectacular images, Zhurong collected data and information about Mars’ geology, atmosphere, environment, and soil. Overall, the probe collected 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data, which the CNSA says has been processed by scientists on Earth and handed over to researchers for further study.
While the probe entered Mars orbit on February 10, 2021, the Zhurong rover did not land on Mars until May 14. It landed on Utopia Planitia, the current home of NASA’s Viking 2 spacecraft, on the vast Martian plain in 1975. In June 2022, Zhurong found hydrated minerals in sediments dated to Mars’ most recent geological period, possibly associated with groundwater. Hydrated minerals include substances such as olivine, pyroxene, and feldspar, which have likely changed when integrating water into their chemical structure. Unfortunately, Zhurong had to go into sleep mode from May 18, 2022, due to falling temperatures and poor sand and dust conditions in the Martian winter. This sleep mode ensures the long-term survival of the rover, which will wake up again in December.
Tianwen-1 has made China the third country to land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars successfully. In contrast, the European Space Agency (ESA), India, and the United Arab Emirates have successfully sent their spacecraft into an orbit of the Red Planet. Tianwen-1 also demonstrates China’s desire to explore Mars, as it recently announced plans to return Mars samples to Earth in 2031, exactly two years before NASA and ESA.
Alongside their ambitious robotics missions, the CNSA announced last year that it plans to send its first crewed mission to the Red Planet in 2033, to send regular missions to Mars and eventually build a base there. This 2033 timeframe is the opposite of NASA, which announced earlier this year that they plan to send astronauts to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s. China seems very serious about manned space exploration, as the Tiangong space station currently houses three astronauts on six-month stays, with the latest crew arriving just last month.