Tianwen-1, China's Mars Rover and Orbiter Mission

Facts Worth Sharing

  • Tianwen-1 ("questions to heaven," or "questioning the heavens") is China's first Mars mission, consisting of an orbiter and rover. It entered Mars orbit on 10 February 2021 and the rover will not land until May or June.
  • Among the rover’s science instruments is a radar that could detect pockets of water beneath the surface, which may contain life.
  • Only NASA has successfully landed and operated spacecraft on Mars. More countries exploring Mars and our solar system means more discoveries and opportunities for global collaboration.

Why We Need Tianwen-1

Water doesn’t currently exist on Mars' surface, but it used to. We know this from dramatic dry canyons and river channels seen from orbit, as well as minerals on the surface that only form in liquid water. Around 3 billion years ago, something happened to Mars’ atmosphere, and most of the liquid water evaporated. But some of it may still be underground, safely shielded from harmful solar radiation that bombards the planet’s surface. Could those ancient pockets of water contain life?

China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission launched on 23 July 2020 amidst the added challenge of the global COVID-19 pandemic. It will, among other things, search for pockets of water using radar mounted on the rover. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft found evidence for subsurface water using radar from orbit, but this will be the first time a rover has searched from the ground. (NASA’s Perseverance rover also has a radar instrument; it will launch and land on Mars at about the same time as Tianwen-1.)

Tianwen-1 will give China valuable Mars experience and lay groundwork for a possible sample return mission planned for the end of the 2020s. Getting Martian samples back to Earth is a top priority for the scientific community. Despite the impressive advances made in placing miniature science instruments on spacecraft, only Earth-bound technology can date samples with absolute precision, reproduce scientific results, and verify the presence or absence of life in a sample.

Only NASA has successfully landed and operated spacecraft on Mars. More countries exploring Mars and our solar system means more
discoveries and opportunities for global collaboration. Space exploration brings out the best in us all, and when nations work
together everyone wins.

Tianwen means "questions to heaven," or "questioning the heavens." You can listen to a pronunciation of Tianwen by Quanzhi Ye. All interplanetary Chinese missions are expected to carry the Tianwen moniker going forward.

Martian Dunescape
A Possible Tianwen-1 View China's Tianwen-1 orbiter is equipped with a powerful camera that could produce Mars pictures similar to those from NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter. This MRO image shows a field of sand dunes.Image: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

How Tianwen-1 Works

As China’s first Mars mission, Tianwen-1 is uniquely ambitious. No nation has ever attempted to send an orbiter and rover to Mars on the first try. Getting from space to the Martian surface is a unique challenge that China will be facing for the first time. Mars landings require heat shielding, thrusters, and supersonic parachutes—a teeth-gnashing experience that NASA has dubbed the “7 minutes of terror.” The landing platform and rover are expected to touch down on Utopia Planitia—the vast Martian plain where NASA’s Viking 2 spacecraft landed in the 1970s, and the site of a shipbuilding yard in the Star Trek universe.

Tianwen-1 will arrive in Mars orbit as a single spacecraft; the rover's landing attempt is not expected until May. Once on Mars, the landing platform will extend a ramp, allowing the rover to roll gently onto the surface—similar to the way China’s Chang’e Moon rovers are deployed. The rover can communicate directly with Earth or use its orbiter for high-speed data relay. The orbiter has its own set of science instruments for studying Mars, including a high-resolution camera that should produce stunning images. 

The rover will have cameras, instruments for studying Mars’ climate and geology, and even an instrument to zap rocks and record the resulting chemical signatures—just like NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers. The rover radar works by shooting radio waves into the surface and measuring reflection times, allowing scientists on Earth to piece together a 3D map of what lies beneath. 

China’s Yutu-2 rover used radar on the far side of the Moon to reveal 3 distinct layers extending 40 meters beneath the surface. Scientists tested a rover-sized radar in China’s Qaidim basin—a cold, desert region like Mars—and were able to detect underground water pockets of water. On Earth, these pockets can host thriving microbial communities, so detecting them on Mars would be an important step in our search for life on other worlds.

Tianwen-1 enters Mars orbit This video shows China's Tianwen-1 orbiter and rover entering Mars orbit on 10 February 2021. The spacecraft captured the images 3 seconds apart, and the entire video covers a period of 27 minutes.Video: CNSA/PEC via Andrew Jones

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How You Can Support Tianwen-1

Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan once said that when you’re in love, you want to tell the world. Space missions like Tianwen-1 are dependent upon sustained public enthusiasm from people like you. You know your audience best; we've got tools to help.

Tell The World

  • Spread the Facts Worth Sharing at the top of this article on social media
  • Send this page to others using the short URL planetary.org/tianwen-1
  • Share pretty pictures of Mars and Tianwen-1

Learn More

  • Find out why missions to Mars are so important
  • Stay up to date on Tianwen-1 and other missions by signing up for The Downlink, our weekly newsletter

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