A Chinese spacecraft has made it to Mars for the first time, boosting China’s attempt to be a space power on par with the US.
Tianwen-1 reached Mars’ orbit, Chinese state media reported at 8:57 pm. Beijing time on Wednesday. It will orbit for several months before sending a rover to land on a large plain on the Martian surface.
The Chinese mission is part of a flurry of visitors to the Red Planet that includes NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, which is likely to reach Mars later this month and will test technologies for future human exploration. The Hope spacecraft from the UAE entered Martian orbit on February 9.
While these missions raise hopes for a Neil Armstrong moment on Mars, speedy breakthroughs are unlikely, according to Richard de Grijs, an astrophysics professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. “Mars is the big goal but that’s going to take some time,” he said.
China’s space programme has ambitious plans reaching into the next decade, including sending Chinese astronauts to the moon. “It’s a multi-year well-formed program, doggedly going forward,” de Grijs said.
Tianwen-1 is part of a broader effort to close the gap with NASA. A Chinese spacecraft landed on the far side of the moon in 2019 and another lunar mission returned to Earth in December carrying samples.
The country is poised to notch up more accomplishments this year, including the launch of the initial part of a space station.
Other private and government programmes aiming at Mars have suffered setbacks.