Mars mission team prepares for its toughest challenge

By Zhao Lei | China Daily | Updated: 2021-04-29 09:25
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Spacecraft control specialists at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center monitor the operations of the Tianwen 1 Mars probe in this undated photo. PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Scientists are readying the Tianwen 1 lander for touchdown on the red planet. Zhao Lei reports.

As Beijing's residents bask among the spring blossoms, engineers and technicians in the capital's northwestern suburbs are busily preparing for a challenging maneuver involving a spacecraft hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth.

The team members-spacecraft control professionals at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center-are making all-out efforts to ensure that Tianwen 1, China's first independent interplanetary mission, will soon safely land a rover on Mars to conduct scientific tests.

The rover was recently named Zhurong after an ancient god of fire.

"The next step will be the entry, descent and landing procedures, which will be the most challenging and risky parts of the entire mission," Cui Xiaofeng, chief controller of the mission at the center, told China Daily in an exclusive interview this month.

From February, the center's engineers and technicians have been working to a tight schedule to ensure that everything will be perfect before the landing is attempted, he said.

"Since the spacecraft started orbiting Mars and conducting extensive examinations of the preselected landing area in late February, it has generated a huge amount of data and images," Cui said.

"That's producing a heavy workload for my team members, who are responsible for making detailed arrangements for the investigative operations and conducting high-precision orbital control maneuvers. Furthermore, they are tasked with processing the data and giving the findings to scientists for analysis and research."

In addition, the controllers will continue working to improve the procedures for the entry, descent and landing maneuvers until the moment they actually occur.

"Even though the procedures were basically worked out months ago, our people need to keep simulating as many scenarios as possible and optimizing plans for the upcoming maneuvers," Cui said, adding that the team is racing to complete its tasks.

"Compared with landing on the moon, touching down on Mars is more demanding and complex as a result of the planet's unique atmospheric conditions and other uncertainties. That's why scientists call the process 'Seven Minutes of Terror'," the chief controller said. "The team is doing its best to make it a success."

Ultimate goal

The Tianwen 1 probe, named after an ancient Chinese poem, consists of two major sections-an orbiter and a landing capsule.

It was launched by a Long March 5 heavy-lift carrier rocket on July 23 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southernmost island province of Hainan. As such, it kicked off China's planetary exploration program.

The mission's ultimate goal is to land a rover next month or in June in the southern region of Utopia Planitia-a vast plain within Utopia, the largest recognized impact basin in the solar system-to conduct scientific surveys.

If the robotic mission succeeds, Chinese scientists will get their first opportunity to closely observe Mars, which was first recorded in the country on oracle bone inscriptions in about 1300 BC.

In ancient China, the reddish celestial sphere was known as Yinghuo, or "flickering flame", a name derived from ancient astronomers' observations that it moved like a capricious light in the night sky.

Tianwen 1 is currently held in a parking orbit about 280 kilometers above Mars and it circles the planet every two days. The probe is now more than 280 million km from Earth.

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