The new Chinese mission includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover. While other countries have taken a staggered approach to visiting Mars — an orbiter first, then a lander, then finally a rover — China emphasizes that it will attempt to operate all of these components for the first time at once.
The orbiter, according to four scientists involved in the mission, will study Mars and its atmosphere for about one Martian year, or 687 days on Earth. In addition to two cameras, the spacecraft carries subsurface radar, a detector to study the Martian magnetic field and three other scientific instruments.
The rover will try to land in the Utopia Planitia region in the mid-northern Martian latitudes. NASA’s Viking 2 mission touched down there in 1976. Earlier studies using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed that Utopia Planitia has a layer of water ice equivalent to what is found in Lake Superior on Earth.
If it manages the perilous Martian landing, the rover will use a mix of cameras, ground-penetrating radar and other instruments to better understand the distribution of underground ice, which future human colonists on Mars could use to sustain themselves. China’s mission is to last about 90 Martian days.
A fourth mission, the joint Russian-European Rosalind Franklin rover, was to launch this summer, too. But technical hurdles, aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, could not be overcome in time. It is now scheduled to launch in 2022.
What other spacecraft are currently studying Mars?
It’s getting a bit crowded around the red planet.
Six orbiters are currently studying the planet from space. Three were sent there by NASA: Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in 2005; and MAVEN, which left Earth in 2013.
Europe has two spacecraft in orbit. Its Mars Express orbiter was launched in 2003, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is shared with Russia’s space program, lifted off in 2016.