The Chinese space agency has released images captured by a small camera ejected from the country’s first spacecraft headed to Mars, showing the probe in deep space as it approaches halfway through its seven-month journey from Earth to the Red Planet.
Images released by the China National Space Administration on October 1 show the Tianwen 1 probe traveling through the darkness of space. Tianwen deployed a small camera to take the self-portrait as it rolled off the mothership.
Two wide-angle lenses on the deployable camera were programmed for one image per second. The images were relayed to Tianwen via a wireless radio link, then transferred back to ground teams in China.
In the images, the wings of the Tianwen 1 solar panel and the dish-shaped high-gain communications antenna are clearly visible. The white section of the spacecraft is the mission’s entrance module and heat shield, which contains a Chinese rover designed to land on Mars and explore the surface.
There is also a red Chinese flag visible on the spacecraft. The images were released to coincide with China’s National Day, which marks the 71st anniversary of the Communist rule.
The Tianwen 1 robotic spacecraft launched on July 23 on a Long March 5 rocket, the most powerful launcher in the Chinese fleet. So far, the spacecraft has performed two mid-course correction maneuvers to fine-tune its path to Mars, preparing a critical burn to enter orbit the Red Planet in February.
Once in orbit, the Tianwen 1 probe will survey candidate landing sites for two to three months before releasing the lander and rover to enter the Martian atmosphere.
If China carries out these feats according to plan, it will make China the third country to perform a soft landing on Mars – after the Soviet Union and the United States – and the second country to drive a robotic rover to the Red Planet.
The Tianwen 1 orbiter, which will continue its mission after releasing the lander and rover, is designed to run for at least one Martian year, or about two years on Earth. The solar-powered rover, equipped with six wheels for mobility, has a life expectancy of at least 90 days, Chinese officials said.
Chinese scientists say the Tianwen 1 mission will conduct a global survey of Mars, measuring soil and rock composition, looking for signs of buried water ice, and studying the Martian magnetosphere and atmosphere. The orbiter and rover will also observe Martian time and probe the internal structure of Mars.
The Tianwen 1 mission is one of three spacecraft currently en route to Mars. NASA’s Perseverance rover and the UAE-developed Hope orbiter were also launched in July and are well on their way to Mars in February.
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