Two 'first-timer' Mars missions slipped flawlessly into orbit this week

Scott Sutherland
·3 min read
Two 'first-timer' Mars missions slipped flawlessly into orbit this week
Two 'first-timer' Mars missions slipped flawlessly into orbit this week

After travelling for millions of kilometres through interplanetary space, two missions from first-time Mars explorers have arrived at their destination!

Mars' active robot population is getting a substantial boost in 2021. The Curiosity rover is still exploring Gale Crater and Mount Sharp, and the InSight lander continues to listen for marsquakes, with a new mission extension until the end of 2022. In orbit, there's NASA's Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, plus Mars Express and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from the ESA, and the Mars Orbiter Mission from India's ISRO.

Now, just over the past week, two new missions to the Red Planet slipped into orbit.

UAE-Hope-China-Tianwen-1-at-Mars
UAE-Hope-China-Tianwen-1-at-Mars

This illustration shows the both Emirates Mars Mission Hope orbiter and China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft arriving at Mars. Credit: UAE Space Agency/CSNA/NASA/Scott Sutherland

The first to arrive was the United Arab Emirates' Hope mission. This spacecraft performed a flawless breaking maneuver and was captured by Mars' gravity on February 9. Now in orbit, the spacecraft is scheduled for a 2-year mission to circle Mars and collect data on the planet's atmosphere and weather systems.

The next day, on February 10, China's Tianwen-1 mission performed a similar maneuver, slowing itself down after a more than 465 million kilometre journey so that it would gently slip into Mars' gravity well.

Tianwen-1 is ambitious for China's first attempt at a Mars mission. Other first-timers, such as India and the United Arab Emirates, opted only for orbiters. China, though, has gone with something similar to the Viking missions from the mid-1970s, with an added bonus that Viking lacked.

Artist-impression-full-Tianwen-1-mission-Nature-Astronomy
Artist-impression-full-Tianwen-1-mission-Nature-Astronomy

This artist's impression shows the various stages and robots of the Tianwen-1 mission. Credit: Nature Astronomy

Now circling the planet, Tianwen-1 will spend the next 2-3 months in orbit before it releases a lander to descend to the Martian surface. This lander is expected to touch down in a vast plain (likely the floor of an ancient ocean) known as Utopia Planitia. Once safely there, a rover similar to NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers will roll off the top of the lander, to venture out and explore the surrounding area.

ONE MORE TO GO!

After this active week around Mars, one more mission is still due to arrive. NASA's Perseverance rover will reach its destination on Thursday, February 18. The rover is expected to make a harrowing 'seven minutes of terror' plunge into the Martian atmosphere that afternoon, aiming for a touchdown in Jezero Crater by 3:55 p.m. EST.

Watch NASA's preview of Perseverance's 'Seven Minutes of Terror'

Perseverance's mission?: To use all five senses to determine if the Red Planet was once host to microbial life.