China’s first Mars mission has caught a tantalising glimpse of the Red Planet, six months after its probe left Earth.
The mission aims to orbit the planet, land and deploy a rover – a feat no other country has yet accomplished on its first visit to Mars.
The robotic spacecraft, Tianwen-1, took the image while it was 1.4 million miles from Mars, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
The probe’s systems are in good condition, the CNSA said, after 197 days of the mission had elapsed.
Tianwen-1 was launched in July from China’s southern Hainan island. It is expected to reach the orbit of Mars this month.
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In May, it will try to land in Utopia Planitia, a plain in the northern hemisphere, and deploy a rover to explore for 90 days.
If successful, Tianwen-1 will further boosting China’s space credentials after it last year became the first nation since the 1970s to bring back samples from the moon.
It was the first such mission in 44 years – and made China only the third nation to have retrieved samples after the US and Soviet Union.
The Chang’e-5 probe was launched on November 24, and deployed a lander vehicle to the moon’s surface.
The mission will collected amples in a previously unvisited area in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”).
Since the Soviet Union crash-landed the Luna 2 on the moon in 1959, the first human-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries including Japan and India have launched moon missions.
In the Apollo program, which first put men on the moon, the US landed 12 astronauts over six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382 kilograms of rocks and soil.
The Soviet Union deployed three successful robotic sample return missions in the 1970s. The last, the Luna 24, retrieved 170.1 grams of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium, or “Sea of Crises”.
China made its first lunar landing in 2013.
In January 2020, the Chang’e-4 probe touched down on the far side of the moon, the first space probe from any nation to do so.
Last year, the Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu 2 rover captured spectacular images of the ‘dark side’ of the moon, the one invisible from Earth.
The Yutu-2 rover was the first vehicle to explore the dark side of the moon.
The far side has been observed many times from lunar orbits, but never explored on the surface.
It is popularly called the 'dark side' because it cannot be seen from Earth and is relatively unknown, not because it lacks sunlight.
The pioneering landing highlighted China's ambitions to rival the US, Russia and Europe in space through manned flights and the planned construction of a permanent space station.
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