China’s plans for interplanetary exploration just took a big stride forward. The Guardian reports that the country’s Tianwen-1 probe has returned its first photo of Mars, capturing a black-and-white snapshot from about 1.4 million miles away. It doesn’t compare to the more detailed pictures from other explorers (certainly not those on the ground), but that’s not really the point — this is proof China can send a spacecraft to Mars.
The probe should enter Mars orbit on February 10th, with its rover touching down at the Utopia impact basin in May.
The country tried sending a mission to Mars in 2011 with Russian help, but that failed at launch. Not that trips to the Red Planet have been easy for anyone. The ESA, Russia, the US and other countries and organizations have routinely struggled to make the journey.
A successful Tianwen-1 rover landing would clearly boost China’s pride as it embarks on other ambitious projects, including putting a new space station into orbit by 2022. It will effectively serve as a symbolic foil to NASA’s Perseverance mission and might help China justify further exploration beyond Earth.