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China lands on Mars

At 7:18 a.m. on May 15, 2021, the Tianwen-1 space mission entered Mars’ atmosphere and successfully landed in the planned area (Utopia Planitia) while the orbiting station carried out its task around the planet.

The People’s Republic of China is the third country to reach Mars, and the second one to have a mobile exploration vehicle (rover) operating on the planet’s surface. The first country to arrive on Mars was the Soviet Union on December 2, 1971 with two space probes: Mars 2 (November 27, 1971) was destroyed by a storm of debris during landing, while Mars 3 landed, but communication lasted only 14.5 seconds and ceased in an unexplainable manner. It was then the turn of the United States, whose Viking 1 successfully landed on Mars on July 20, 1976.

The Tianwen-1 space mission comprises two parts: the orbital station and the landing module. At the predicted time, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully completed the separation between the two devices. Three hours later, the landing module successfully crossed Mars’ atmosphere and softly landed on the surface of the red planet. About thirty minutes after separation, the orbiting station ascended and returned to circularly traverse Mars.

In this Mars exploration mission, the orbiting station is not only a special interstellar vehicle, but it is also a powerful communications relay station that builds a bridge between Mars and the Earth, and is responsible for remote sensing exploration of Mars’ surface, in view of creating a mapping of the planet.

The orbiting station carries two solar cell devices, an antenna for data transmission and two antennas for mutual information transfer. When the orbiting station performs data transmission tasks, the solar cells need to be directed towards our star to ensure continuous power supply. At the same time, the high-frequency antenna is needed to track the route between the Earth and the module to establish a continuous data link bridge. Thus, the orbiting station must simultaneously establish a synchronized, high-precision pointing control of the three targets: module (then rover), Earth and sun.

Chinese designers have also made plans for possible link disruptions, while ensuring high-precision control of the antenna pointing.

It is an autonomous recovery strategy in case the communication link is disrupted. If this happens, a detector will operate autonomously and the antenna will be returned to Earth with the restoration of telecommunications. The process is carried out independently of conventional devices.

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), as well as President of the State and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, sent a message of congratulations on behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the State Council and the Central Military Commission to extend warm congratulations and sincere greetings to all the scientists who participated in China’s first exploration mission to Mars.

In his message of congratulations President Xi Jinping has underlined that the landing of Tianwen-1 on Mars is an important step in the interstellar exploration journey, thus making the leap from the Earth-Moon system to the interplanetary system, leaving a Chinese mark on Mars: a milestone in the development of the country’s aerospace industry that challenges and pursues excellence by placing China in the most advanced ranks in the field of planetary exploration.

President Xi Jinping has stressed the hope that we could continue to work hard, to carefully organize and implement the scientific exploration of Mars, and to insist on technological self-sufficiency, so as to advance further major space projects and accelerate the construction of new launchers, for achievements that will develop the noble cause of solving the mysteries of the universe and hence promote mankind’s peace and development.

China’s first Mars exploration mission was established in 2016 with plans to orbit, land and explore the planet with a rover.

The Tianwen-1 space mission was successfully launched by the Long March 5 carrier rocket in Wenchang (Hainan) on July 23, 2020, and reached Mars orbit on February 10, 2021 – fourteen days after beginning to perform the functions of an artificial satellite of the planet. Upon entering Mars orbit, it began a three-month exploration series, thus setting the stage for a regular landing.

The China National Space Administration (Guojia Hangtian Ju) has carried out relevant project cooperation with the European Space Agency, as well as with Argentina, France, Austria and other national and international space organizations. Jointly with other organizations, it will contribute to improve the understanding of the origin of life.

China regards hard power as economic, scientific and technological strength, and soft power is aimed at people’s quality of life. Compared to lunar exploration missions, the Mars mission presents more technical challenges. The Mars rover led by Tianwen-1 is the result of China’s independent innovation and uses national designs of carrier rocket systems.

On the other hand, with the strengthening of economic power and the improvement of education level, China has become the world’s second largest investor in research and development, as well as knowledge. The Chinese Academy of Sciences team, in charge of the space mission, has an average age of only 33 years, showing that scientific research talents are younger and that the quality of the new generation people has improved.

Although space projects such as Mars exploration are expensive, they are a platform where governments, businesses, schools, and research institutes focus. Technological breakthroughs in various fields – although currently being sometimes purely abstract (especially in mathematics and theoretical physics) – are capable of directing future development in any field, as Professor Zvi Artstein teaches us. Rocket manufacturing, satellite communications, ground equipment and computer development have all huge market potential, but they have always stemmed from mere conceptual speculation.

The Mars exploration project involves artificial intelligence, materials manufacturing, communications technology, and so on and so forth. Such innovations can be applied to the development of industries aimed at producing goods that improve every person’s daily life.

As usual, some foreign media believe that China’s entry into the ranks of Mars exploration is due to the intensification of competition for space dominance and is therefore designed to seize the opportunity of becoming a super power and strengthening the military potential.

The “Chinese threat theory” has been mentioned again. In simple words: if others conquer space, they do it only out of goodness towards mankind and for the good of the world, while if China does so it is only to dominate the planet. Old-fashioned and pathetic parameters, reminiscent of the science fiction movies of the 1960s that hid the Soviet villain under the guise of the ruthless alien even horrible to see.

In response, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that China’s exploration of Mars is an open scientific project, and the Chinese government is willing to cooperate with other countries in the field of space and its peaceful use, thus promoting the building of a community with a shared future for all Earth’s inhabitants.

There is no doubt that the progress of science and aerospace technology have created a sense of pride and belonging among citizens and has strengthened China’s national unity. In the long run, Chinese researchers will contribute with technology and cognitive wisdom also to manned space missions, as envisaged by a project outlined by Prof. Wang Xiaojun, Rector of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) on September 18, 2020.

Giancarlo Elia Valori