Tianwen-1 has both an orbital section, which will remain in space, and a lander – although the lander won’t attempt to reach solid Martian ground until May.
Once there, it plans to search for underground water and evidence of possible ancient life forms.
According to the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the mission is the country’s first to explore Mars and is successfully orbiting the planet for monitoring purposes ahead of the attempted landing at a site on Utopia Planitia – a plain which is the largest known impact basin there.
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NASA detected possible signs of ice at the site, according to an article in Nature Astronomy by mission chief engineer Wan Weixing, who died in May last year after having cancer.
To enter into Martian orbit, the spacecraft had to perform a challenging braking manoeuvre to decelerate and be captured by the planet’s gravity. This went off successfully, according to the CNSA.
Before entering orbit – at a distance of about 2.2m kilometres from Mars, the spacecraft captured a monochrome image of the planet.
Once the 240kg solar-powered device touches down on Mars it will operate for around three months, looking for biomolecules and biosignatures in the soil, while the orbiter is due to last two years.
The launch is China’s second attempt at heading to Mars.
Only the US has successfully landed a spacecraft on the Red Planet, doing it eight times since 1976.
More than half of the spacecraft sent there have either blown up, burned up or crashed into the surface, including China’s last attempt – in collaboration with Russia – in 2011.