China's first-ever probe to Mars — called the Tianwen-1 — successfully entered orbit on Wednesday, according to a report from the Xinhua News Agency.
This comes one day after the United Arab Emirates' Mars probe — called "Hope" — entered a different orbit around the same Red Planet.
China's first-ever probe to Mars entered orbit around the planet
This makes China the sixth space-capable entity to successfully send a probe to the Red Planet, after the U.S., the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, India, and — as of yesterday — the United Arab Emirates.
This came directly on the heels of the United Arab Emirates' Mars probe — which successfully entered a different orbit around the same Red Planet after a 28-second burn on Tuesday.
However, China's successful placement of a space probe in Martian orbit foreshadows Tianwen-1's next steps. In a few months, a lander-rover hybrid will detach from the probe, and descend into the skies of a plain in Mars' northern hemisphere — called the Utopia Planitia.
While China doesn't always share its space news right away, we can look forward to a possible May landing.
China's last probe crashed and burned
China's first attempt to make moves near the Red Planet involved an orbiter called Yinghuo-1 in November 2011 — which was launched with Russia's Phobos-Grunt sample-return mission. But sadly the orbiter never escaped Earth orbit, and burned up in Earth's atmosphere with Russia's probe and another device from the Planetary Society — called the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment.
Tianwen-1 means "Questioning the Heavens," and has now surpassed Yinguo-1 by an interplanetary margin. This represents the first entirely China-led mission of such scope, and was developed courtesy of the China National Space Administration — although some international collaboration took place.
The probe launched on July 23, 2020, on top of China's Long March 5 rocket.
Tianwen-1 rover will seek pockets of water under Mars' surface
China's Tianwen-1 mission is also of a much wider scope than the country's previous attempt at a Mars mission. The earlier orbiter weighed 254 lbs (115 kg), but the new one orbiting the Red Planet weighed roughly 11,000 lbs (5,000 kg) upon launching — accounting for both the orbiter and the lander-rover mix.
Each of the craft will evaluate Mars in several ways. The orbiter will use a high-resolution camera — in addition to a magnetometer, a spectrometer, and an ice-mapping radar instrument. The orbiting part of the probe will serve as a communications waypoint between the rover and mission control in China.
The rover features a wide array of equipment — including climate and geology instruments, cameras, and ground-breaking (literally) radar — which will seek out hidden reservoirs of water under the ancient surface of Mars.
More international probes at Mars than ever before
"On Earth, these pockets can host thriving microbial communities, so detecting them on Mars would be an important step in our search for life on other worlds," wrote the Planetary Society in a statement on the entity's website.
The rover will make its way down the lander's ramp with wheels after it makes the descent into Mars' atmosphere. If the lander part of Tianwen-1 successfully touches down on the Red Planet, it will become the second country to successfully operate a spacecraft on the surface of the fourth planet from the sun — following only the United States in historical order.
While the Soviet Union landed the first-ever probe on Mars in 1971, the Mars 3 lander died less than two minutes after touching down. Most of the U.S. missions on the surface of the Red Planet have become great success stories — with another rover slated to reach Mars next week. Whatever happens, there are more entities there now than ever before.
This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.