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China has landed on the moon three times, and even managed to bring one of its robotic lunar explorers back to Earth. Can it now pull off the challenge of landing on Mars?
The country’s space agency completed a key step toward that goal on Wednesday when Tianwen-1, the spacecraft the country launched last July, began its orbit of the red planet, according to state media reports. By accomplishing this feat, China completed its first successful journey to another planet in our solar system.
The spacecraft was also the second to arrive at Mars in two days, following a United Arab Emirates probe that began orbiting the neighboring world on Tuesday.
China is expected try to place a lander and a robotic rover on the planet later this year. It would join what could by then be a trio of NASA spacecraft studying the Martian surface.
The Tianwen-1 SpacecraftChina’s mission to Mars features a probe that will land on the planet with help from a parachute.
A parachute attached to a protective SHELL will slow the lander’s descent. Next, a set of STRUTS will deploy midair. Once on the surface, a RAMP will slide out so the rover can drive off.
After the orbiter reaches Mars, the landing probe will detach and descend to the planet’s surface.
Four solar panel wings will unfurl after landing.
By Eleanor Lutz
Source: China National Space Administration and China Central Television
Tianwen-1 left Earth last summer, taking advantage of a period when Mars and Earth were closest to each other during their journeys around the sun. That allowed a relatively short transit between the two worlds.
To catch up with Mars, the spacecraft fired its engines on several occasions, correcting its course so it could approach the red planet at the correct angle. After the most recent engine firing on Feb. 5, the probe sent back pictures of the red planet from a distance of about 1.3 million miles.
On Wednesday at 7:52 p.m. in Beijing (6:52 a.m. Eastern time), the engine lit up again for 15 minutes, expending much of the spacecraft’s remaining fuel in a braking maneuver. That slowed it considerably, and allowed the probe to be captured by Martian gravity into an elliptical orbit. It will now circle at a safe distance, joining the cast of other robotic explorers in Martian orbit as it prepares for that later surface landing attempt.
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The Tianwen-1 probe en route to Mars in an image released in December.Credit...CNSA, via Associated Press
This article first appeared on www.nytimes.com
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