“The main task of Tianwen-1 is to perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet using the orbiter, and to send the rover to surface locations of scientific interests to conduct detailed investigations with high accuracy and resolution,” the mission’s top scientists wrote in Nature Astronomy last year. The roughly 240kg rover is nearly twice the mass of China’s Yutu Moon rovers.
Tianwen-1 is the name of the overall Mars mission, named after the long poem “Tianwen,” which means “Questions to Heaven.” It marks the latest in a quick succession of advances in space exploration for China. The country became the first nation in history to land and operate a rover on the far side of the Moon in 2019. It also completed a brief lunar sample mission in December last year, launching a robot to the Moon and swiftly returning it back to Earth with a cache of Moon rocks for evaluation.
China’s Long March 5B, the same rocket used to send Tianwen-1 to Mars, launches a space station module last month. Photo by STR / AFP via Getty Images
More recently, China launched the first core module of its planned space station, Tianhe, which will serve as living quarters for groups of astronauts. The rocket that launched that module spawned an international freakout over where on Earth it might reenter. (It eventually reentered over the Indian Ocean, and large chunks of the rocket splashed down roughly 30 miles off an island in the Maldives, the Chinese government said.)
Despite this ambitious trek to Mars with its trio of three robots, China’s focus seems to be fixed on the Moon — the same immediate destination for NASA’s Artemis program. Earlier this year, China announced plans to build a lunar space station and base on the Moon’s surface with Russia, NASA’s longtime partner on the International Space Station.