China successfully launched a combination Mars orbiter and rover early this morning, using a Long March 5 rocket that took off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island at 12:41 AM EDT. The Tianwen-1 payload it carries represents China’s first full-scale Mars exploration mission, after a prior partial attempt with an orbital Mars satellite called Yinghuo-1 failed to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011.
This is a major effort not just for China, but also for extra-terrestrial planetary exploration in general, because it includes the combination effort of both the lander and rover in one combined mission, with the plan to deploy the rover on land and have it communicate with the orbiter as it makes its way around Mars.
Tianwen-1 is the second Mars mission to take off this month, following a successful launch earlier this week by the UAE from Japan atop a Japanese MHI rocket. That mission, “Hope,” carried an orbiter designed to take atmospheric readings of the red planet’s atmosphere.
China’s mission includes a planned 90-day excursion for the solar-powered rover it carries, which will employ various instruments on board to take samples and readings, including multispectral photography, surface composition, weather readings and magnetic field information. The orbiter will also use its own cameras and instruments to gather info, including spectrometer readings, radar and photography, and will also act as a relay station to get data from the rover back to Earth.
There’s still one more mission to Mars yet to go before this year’s close approach (the time when Earth and Mars are closest to each other in their relative solar orbits) ends: NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover launch. That’s set to take off on July 30, weather and conditions permitting. Perseverance is the successor to NASA’s Curiosity rover, and includes a number of new scientific instruments to seek evidence of ancient life, and will attempt to gather samples to actually return to Earth. It’ll also carry a small autonomous helicopter, which will hopefully become the first powered aircraft to take off from the surface of Mars when it reaches the red planet.
Tianwen-1 is expected to reach Mars next February, after a multi-month passage, which is the shortest trip possible between the two planets based on their relative orbits.