China’s Mars probe, Tianwen-1, has been hanging around Mars in a parking lot for almost two full months now, preparing for its rover landing in May.
But it’s not just sitting there in orbit spinning the antennas. The probe monitors the planet, orbits closer, checks the mission’s chosen rover landing site – and sends back some amazing photos of our dusty planet friend.
On March 16 and March 18, the spacecraft took two panoramic photographs with the camera in the intermediate resolution of a crescent moon Mars seen from its distant side, with the sun behind, from a distance of approx. 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles).
From that distance, surface features are visible, different colors streak across Mars’ face, and a faint foggy contour – the planet’s thin but dusty atmosphere wrapped around it like a delicate shell.
Mars is the most visited planet in the solar system, but there is much we still do not know about it. With eight orbiters currently in operation (including Tianwen-1 and the UAE’s Hope orbiter, which also arrived in February this year), as well as two rovers and a lander, new discoveries are being made all the time.
Tianwen-1 carries a lander and rover that is to touch Utopia Planitia, inside the Utopia Battle Basin in the northern hemisphere of Mars. It is a large lava plain where large amounts of ice have been found, and which scientists believe was once home to an ocean before Mars lost its liquid surface water.
Exploring this region, according to China’s National Space Administration, could provide some vital clues that could help us gather even more of the planet’s mysterious history.
A landing date has not yet been set, but it is scheduled for mid-May, according to an address by Chi Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences at Space Science Week 2021.
Once the rover is dropped, the orbit continues to circulate around the planet, performing its own observations and acting as a communication relay between Earth and Mars.
Hopefully in the coming years we will see many more pictures like these.