China's Tianwen 1 Mars orbiter changes orbit to begin planetary survey

After months of support for the Zhurong Rover, China's Tianwen 1 Mars orbiter changed its orbit to start a remote sensing survey.
Since February, the spacecraft has been orbiting Mars and Tianwen 1 released Zhurong 1 to aid in its successful landing in Mars' Utopia planitia. Tianwen 1 made three passes around Mars during its orbit, one overhead of the six-wheeled spacecraft, and one more pass over Earth to relay data from Zhurong, which has a larger antennae, to Earth.

According to the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology ( Chinese), Tianwen 1's engines were fired for 260 seconds Monday (Nov. 8), increasing its speed by 248 miles (400 kilometers) per second. The spacecraft went from orbiting once per 8 hours and 12 min with a closest approach of 248 mi (400 km) and highest point at 7,456 miles (12,000km), to orbiting once per 7 hours and 5 minuts with a periapsis distance of 165 miles (265km) and an apoapsis distance of approximately 6,500 miles (10 700 km).

Related: China's Tianwen 1 Mars Mission in Photos

Tianwen 1's original plan called for an orbit that would last 7 hours and 48 mins. The mission's scientists created a new orbit because Zhurong is still functioning well after its initial three-month mission. This would allow Tianwen 1 the ability to conduct a global Mars survey and also aid in relaying data from Zhurong back to Earth.

Tianwen 1 has seven science payloads. These include medium- and high resolution cameras that can be used to map large areas of Mars as well as return sharper images of its surface. The Mars Orbiter Subsurface Investigation Radar, (MOSIR), will also be monitoring the surface for water ice. Impact craters, canyons, and volcanoes are all targets of special interest.

Tianwen 1 also has a magnetometer, a magneticometer, and a mineralogical spectrumr for analyzing the surface. Tianwen 1's orbit crosses the poles. This means that it will be able, as the planet orbits and rotates, to survey the entire planet's surface.

This image, released Nov. 8, 2021, shows a driving plan for China's Zhurong Mars rover as part of the Tianwen-1 missions. (Image credit: Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center (BACC))

The spacecraft's design life expectancy is two years (Earth), but Tianwen 1 may be extended to allow for longer activity. Zhu Xinbo (deputy chief designer of orbiter) stated that the orbiter's design life will end next year. He added that new missions will be designed based on the orbiter's specific conditions.

Data from Tianwen 1 can also be used to plan future Mars missions. This includes a Chinese Mars sample return attempt, which could launch as early as 2028.

Zhurong is now moving south from its landing station and has traveled 4,111 feet (1.253 meters). This means that the approximately 530-pound (240 kgs) solar-powered vehicle covered 233 feet (7 meters) since it resumed activity following the recent Mars communication blackout.

According to a new route map published by China National Space Administration (CNSA), Zhurong is now near a sentiment-filled valley after coming within close proximity to a small dunes.

ESA's Mars Express attempted to transmit data to Earth from Zhurong on Sunday, November 7. To review the results of the first data transmission trial, a technical review session was scheduled for Wednesday, November 10.

Zhurong and Tianwen 1 launched together on July 23, 2020. Zhurong and Tianwen 1 entered orbit on February 10, 2019, with Zhurong landing on May 14, while Zhurong rolled down from its landing platform on the Martian surface on April 22.

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