Last summer, Earth and Mars were entering a period where they are closest together, when spacecraft can follow a path called the Hohmann transfer orbit. This is the most efficient way to travel between the two planets, which was why three missions to Mars were all launch around the same time — NASA’s Perseverance rover, UAE’s Hope mission, and China’s Tianwen-1.
Now, these craft are all approaching the red planet, and China’s craft has sent back its first image of Mars.
Just before arriving at Mars, Tianwen-1 made its fourth orbital correction to ensure it will be in the right place to approach Mars. “The robotic vehicle ignited one of its engines at 8 pm to make an orbital correction and ensure it would be flying in the right direction toward the Martian gravitational field,” the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said in a statement. “Tianwen 1 has flown for 197 days and more than 465 million kilometers on its journey to the planet. It is now around 184 million km from Earth and 1.1 million km from Mars.”
The image captured by the craft is in beautiful definition, even though it was taken from over 1.4 million miles away. You can see some key features of martian geography like Meridiani Planum and the Schiaparelli Crater to the right of the image (on the lower side of the large white patch), and the Valles Marineris canyons (the darker patch in the center-left of the image).
The next phase of the mission is the braking operation to slow the craft down and allow it to be captured by the Mars gravity and enter orbit around the planet. Then preparations begin for the landing of the Tianwen-1 mission’s rover. Once the craft has entered orbit, it will image the landing site below before attempting a landing in May.
“The mission’s ultimate goal is to soft-land a rover in May on the southern part of Mars’ Utopia Planitia – a large plain within Utopia, the largest recognized impact basin in the solar system – to conduct scientific surveys,” CNSA said.