China’s National Space Administration said the spacecraft performed a maneuver to adjust its orbit early Wednesday morning Beijing time and would remain in new orbit for about the next three months before attempting to land. During that time, it will map the surface of Mars and use its cameras and other sensors to collect additional data, especially about its potential landing site.
This follows the landing of American rover Perseverance last Thursday near an ancient river delta in Crater Lake in search of signs of ancient microscopic life.
A successful bid to land Tianwen-1 would make China only the second country after the United States to set up a spacecraft on Mars. A Chinese solar-powered vehicle, about the size of a golf cart, will collect groundwater data and look for evidence that the planet may once have lived microscopic life.
Tianwen, the title of an ancient song, means “Search for Heavenly Truth.”
The landing of a spacecraft on Mars is notoriously cunning. A dozen orbiters missed the target. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter associated with Mars, which was part of the Russian mission, did not come out of Earth orbit.
China’s attempt will include a parachute, rocket fire and airbags. The proposed landing site is a vast, rock-covered plain called Utopia Planitia, where the American Viking 2 landed in 1976.
The arrival of Tianwen-1 on Mars on February 10 was preceded by the arrival of orbiters from the United Arab Emirates. All three most recent missions were launched in July to take advantage of the narrow alignment between Earth and Mars that occurs only once every two years.
Tianwen-1 represents the most ambitious mission to date for China’s secret, military-linked space program that first put an astronaut into orbit around Earth in 2003 and returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft in 2019 on the little-explored far side of the moon.
China is also building a permanent space station and is planning a manned mission and a possible permanent research base on the Moon, although no dates have been proposed yet.
The program is a source of immense national pride, and Tianwen-1 has attracted a particularly strong audience. Tourists flocked to the tropical island of Hainan to watch the launch, while others visited the false colonies of Mars in desert places with white domes, locks and spacesuits.