While the landing of Perseverance unleashed passions a few months ago, China has just repeated the feat by bringing its Tianwen-1 rover to the bottom of the Red Planet. Many people see in this act the return of a real “war on space” with China playing the leading role. Because at the moment nobody except NASA and CNSA (the Chinese space agency) has managed to land a rover on Mars. Europe and Russia should nevertheless use the next window of favorable fire to our red neighbor to join the list.
The probe, which was launched in July 2020, reached the orbit of Mars in February after a journey of 55 million kilometers (equivalent to 3500 Paris-Sydney). May 14th was chosen by the CNSA as the big day of the expedition. The landing took place in the middle of the night from Friday to Saturday at 1 a.m. French time.
Inside the probe, a small remote-controlled module, Zhurong – the god of fire in Chinese mythology – will spend the next few months on the bed of the red planet. It should conduct all kinds of experiments on its seismology, its geology, but also on the type of persistence, on the ability of our red neighbor to inhabit life or not.
A completely new approach technique
If the United States has been the only one to land a probe on Martian soil – and get it working – then China has just entered the race to explore Mars with an entirely new approach. American probes that reach the bottom of the Red Planet, such as perseverance or curiosity, generally use what is known as a “flying crane” system to place their probe with the greatest gentleness. This technique, which has now proven itself, consists in lowering the probe along a stretched wire so that it touches the Martian floor at a very low speed. The rest of the module stands a few tens of meters above the ground, thus ensuring the descent.
However, China did not choose to copy this descent technique for the arrival of Tianwen-1. The CNSA has indeed chosen a method that it knows and has already used for its trips to the moon. Tianwen-1 therefore descended at high speed, protected by its heat shield, in the direction of Mars, before braking with retrosue rockets and thus very slowly reaching the ground. If this technique had already been proven on the moon in the past, it was never used successfully on Mars. That’s done.
China: power number 1 in space?
With this successful landing 55 million kilometers from us, China’s role in the development of space on an international scale can no longer be proven. While many observers believe that space is entering a new golden age, Beijing’s power is no stranger to this return of interest in space. The CNSA has surprised the world several times over the past few years and made it at breakneck speed. As early as 2019, the Chinese space agency had achieved the impossible by placing a probe on the other side of the moon. A very complex mission that even the Americans never dared to undertake.
Just a few weeks ago, China continued its extremely ambitious space program by launching the first module of its future national space station into orbit. If the return of the central leg of Long March 5B has dwarfed the rest of the mission, the latter remains a huge success for China, which with this station will become completely independent from NASA and ESA, two entities it should work with Coexistence in the ISS.
Next step: 2030 and the moon?
Beijing has never hidden it, its goal is to reach the moon one day. The Chinese calendar predicts that the arrival of the first taikonaut on our satellite will take place in 2030. If NASA has since planned, especially under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, to send Americans back to the moon before the end of the decade. The American agency’s schedule seems untenable, and the numerous delays could make the first exploration of China possible 60 years after Neil Armstrong.
As China waits to set foot on the moon, it continues to occupy space and nothing appears to be able to slow the CNSA’s accelerated development. But the Beijing agency is splitting. If some are intrigued by the latter’s exploits, others remember that it is still very late in fundamental areas, particularly as regards the management of its rubble or the return of its launch vehicles to Earth. By wanting to skip steps to keep up with decades of development, China has been able to forget its basics.