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HomeMarsChina’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft sends back breathtaking high resolution images of Mars

China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft sends back breathtaking high resolution images of Mars

China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft sends back breathtaking high resolution images of Mars
China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft sends back breathtaking high resolution images of Mars
The swirling clouds of Mars seen from the Tianwen-1 spacecraft (Credits: Top Photo Corporation/REX)

These are the latest images of the planet Mars, taken by the Chinese spacecraft Tianwen-1 and released by the country’s space agency last week.

They show the dusty red surface, pockmarked with craters from meteorite impacts occurring over the millennia.

The images were taken from about 205 miles (330km) from the surface of Mars and include one colour and two black-and-white pictures.

They were snapped by two survey cameras on the craft that will help the Chinese space agency map the surface and find a suitable landing site for its on-board rover.

Tianwen-1, which loosely translates as ‘Quest for Heavenly Truth’ took the pictures after executing a manoeuvre to adjust its position into a temporary parking orbit.

epa09050408 An undated handout photo made available by China National Space Administration (CNSA) on 04 March shows the surface of Mars captured from Tianwen-1 spacecraft. The black and white picture was taken by a high-resolution camera from a Tianwen-1???s parked orbit of Mars, at an altitude of 330 km to 350 km from the Martian surface, with a resolution of about 0.7 meters. EPA/CHINA NATIONAL SPACE ADMINISTRATION / HANDOUT -- MANDATORY CREDIT -- HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
This black and white picture was taken by a high-resolution camera on board Tianwen-1 (Credits: EPA)

It will remain in the new orbit for about the next three months before attempting to land on the surface of the Red Planet. 

During that time, it will be mapping the surface of Mars and using its cameras and other sensors to collect further data, particularly about its prospective landing site. 

A successful bid to land Tianwen-1 would make China only the second country after the US to place an operating rover on Mars. 

This image made available by the China National Space Administration on Thursday, March 4, 2021, shows a high-resolution photo of the surface of Mars taken by China's Tianwen-1 probe as it orbits the planet in preparation for landing. China says a cohort of astronauts have been selected and are in training to carry out four crewed missions this year as the country works to complete its first permanent orbiting space station. (CNSA via AP)
The cameras can pick up all the crater impacts on the Martian surface (Credits: AP)

China’s solar-powered vehicle, about the size of a golf cart, will collect data on underground water and look for evidence that the planet may have once harboured microscopic life.

What will Tianwen-1 do?

Tianwen-1’s aims are almost all scientific.

And that could include searching for aliens – both past and present.

There has long been speculation that microbial life could exist on Mars, but definitive proof has yet to be found.

But searching for life is only a small part of the Chinese mission – the Tianwen rover will also produce surface maps, determine soil composition and look for water ice deposits on the planet.

China eventually hopes to establish a base on Mars (Photo: Getty)
In 2019, China revealed a simulation moon base on Earth (Photo: Getty)

Two years ago, China revealed a simulation Mars base on Earth – if it wants to install a real one, information from Tianwen will be vital.

The rover will also examine the Martian atmosphere, looking closely at the ionosphere, one of the highest atmospheric layers.

How will Tianwen-1 land on Mars?

In May the real task will begin, when China plans to land its rover on the Mars surface.

Tianwen-1 will aim to land on Utopia Planitia, a vast meteor crater in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

The basin was previously visited by Nasa’s Viking 2 lander in 1976.

Valles Marineris, Mars, illustration
Mars has thousands of craters from meteor impacts over the millenia. This is a picture of Valles Marineris, a 3,000 km long series of craters on the Red Planet. (Photo: Getty)

China hopes to understand the distribution of ice in the region better, in order to support potential future human Mars colonists.

But the descent is not easy – the only option is to descend at a relatively high speed through the thin atmosphere, and burn the little fuel the spacecraft has at the last second to cushion the landing.

Even with the thin atmosphere, there is still intense heat generated that needs to be dealt with by the spacecraft, being either absorbed or dissipated.

While there are three rovers currently on Mars, many more have crashed due to the difficulty of the landing.

A large reason for the delay between entering orbit, which Tianwen did today, and landing, is to survey the area for an appropriately safe landing spot.

Once the rover lands, China will name its craft – the final name has yet to be decided, but names in the running include Hongyi, meaning ambition and persitence, Qilin, a mythical hoofed creature, and Nezha, a rebellious young deity.

What are China’s space plans?

Mars isn’t the only item on the menu for China’s space agency.

In November, it’s Chang’e-5 mission launched for the moon, to collect lunar samples for scientists on Earth to study.

It returned to Earth in December with the first new collection of moon rocks since the Soviet Union’s last lunar mission in 1976.

China’s Chang-e spacecraft successfully returned to Earth last year (Photo: Getty)

On the dark side of the moon is also China’s Chang’e-4 rover, which landed in January 2019, and Yutu-2 rover, which landed at the same time.

China’s other plans include an asteroid probe named ZhengHe, to bring Martian samples back to Earth later this decade, and a Jupiter exploration mission planned in 15 years time.

China also hopes to have a lunar research station operated by robots, but the date for that is still a way off in the future.

How many other Mars missions are there?

Illustration of a satellite in front of Mars
Mars is getting a little crowded. (Credits: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)

Spacecraft launched to Mars tend to stay there until they fail or run out of power, so the planet’s getting a little crowded.

There are currently six orbiters around the planet – three from Nasa (Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN), two from Europe (Mars Express and ExoMars) and one from India (Mangalyaan).

Down on the actual Mars surface are three American rovers, Curiosity, InSight and Perseverance.

A fourth American rover, Opportunity, was roving until 2019, when a powerful dust storm caused it to lose power and connection with Earth.

Perseverance is similar in design to Curiosity, which is currently mapping the Gale crater, but will carry a different set of scientific instruments.

It will explore the dried-out Jezero crater, which scientists believe might be a candidate for fossilised microbial life.

Perseverance will be accompanied by a friend, too: it will drop off the Ingenuity helicopter just after landing.

Ingenuity, the first helicopter to be flown in the Martian atmosphere, will attempt to demonstrate Mars can be explored by air as well as by ground.