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China’s space probe beams back its first image of Mars

BEIJING: China’s Tianwen-1 probe has sent back its first image of Mars, the national space agency said, as the mission prepares to touch down on the Red Planet later in 2021.

According to details, the spacecraft, launched in July around the same time as a rival U.S. mission, is expected to enter Mars orbit around February 10.

In the video, published by state broadcaster CCTV, the surface of the planet is seen coming into view out of a pitch-black sky against the outside of the Tianwen-1, which entered the orbit of the Red Planet on Wednesday.

White craters are observable on the planet’s surface, which fades from white to black through the video as the probe flies over the course of one Martian day, said official news agency Xinhua.

The 5,000-kilogramme (five-tonne) Tianwen-1 – which translates to “Questions to Heaven” – includes a Mars orbiter, a lander and a solar-powered rover and launched from southern China last July.

It is the latest step in Beijing’s space program, which aims to establish a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually put an astronaut on the moon, and has opened up a new, extraterrestrial arena for US-China competition.

Tianwen-1 launched around the same time as a rival US mission and is expected to touch down on the surface of the planet in May.

Its success comes the same week as the United Arab Emirates’s Hope probe also successfully entered Mars’s orbit – making history as the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. Chinese scientists hope to land a 240-kilogram (529-pound) rover in May in Utopia, an enormous impact basin on Mars. Its orbiter will last for a Martian year.

For the three-month study of the planet’s soil and atmosphere, the mission will take photos, chart maps and look for signs of past life.

The probe has already sent back its first image of Mars – a black-and-white photo that showed geological features including the Schiaparelli crater and the Valles Marineris, a vast stretch of canyons on the Martian surface.

NASA’s Perseverance, which is set to touch down on the Red Planet on February 18, will become the fifth rover to complete the voyage since 1997 – and all so far have been American.

Tianwen-1 is China’s second attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars. In 2011, a Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth’s orbit.

China’s secretive, military-linked space program has progressed considerably since then. In December, its Change 5 mission was the first to bring lunar rocks to Earth since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft on the little-explored far side of the moon in 2019.

The Chinese mission is it’s most ambitious yet. If all goes as planned, the rover would separate from the spacecraft in a few months and attempt to touch down. If things go as planned, China would become only the second nation to do so successfully.