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Chinese and UAE spacecraft enter Mars orbit

Sam McNeil, February 14, 2021 2:15PM AP

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An artist’s drawing of the UAE Hope spacecraft travelling to Mars. Picture: UAE media_cameraAn artist’s drawing of the UAE Hope spacecraft travelling to Mars. Picture: UAE


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A Chinese spacecraft has gone into orbit around Mars on an expedition* to land a rover on the surface and search for signs of ancient life.

The arrival of Tianwen-1 after a journey of seven months and almost 475 million kilometres is part of an unusual burst of activity at Mars: a spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around Mars on February 9 and a US rover is set to arrive this week.

China’s space agency said the uncrewed* 4536kg combination orbiter and rover fired its engine to reduce its speed, allowing it to be captured by Mars’ gravity.

“Entering orbit has been successful … making it our country’s first artificial* Mars satellite*,” the agency announced.

media_cameraA photograph of Mars taken by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft. Picture: AFP/China National Space Administration

If all goes as planned, the rover will separate from the spacecraft in a few months and touch down safely on Mars, which is known as the red planet. The landing would make China only the second nation to pull off such a feat*.

The rover, a solar-powered vehicle about the size of a golf cart, will collect data on underground water and look for evidence that the planet might have once had microscopic* life.

Landing a spacecraft on Mars has been very difficult in the past. About a dozen orbiters have failed, with smashed Russian, European and US spacecraft littering the Mars landscape. And in 2011, a Mars-bound Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth’s orbit.

Only the US has successfully touched down on Mars — eight times, beginning with two Viking missions in the 1970s.

In 2018, NASA landed the InSight spacecraft on Mars, the first mission to explore the planet’s deep interior.

NASA lands on Mars

China’s attempt will involve a parachute, rocket firings and airbags. Its proposed landing site is a vast, rocky plain* called Utopia Planitia, where the US Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

Before the arrival of the Chinese Tianwen-1 and the UAE Hope spacecrafts last week, six other spacecraft were already operating around Mars: three from the US, two from Europe and one from India.

All three of the latest missions were launched in July 2020 to take advantage of the close alignment* between Earth and Mars that happens only once every two years.

A NASA rover called Perseverance is aiming for a February 18 landing. It, too, will search for signs of ancient microscopic life, collecting rocks that will be returned to Earth in about a decade.

media_cameraAn illustration of the Perseverance rover that NASA plans to land on Mars after entering the planet’s orbit this week. Picture: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/AFP


expedition: a journey made to explore or do research

uncrewed: having no people on board

artificial: made by humans

satellite: a device orbiting a planet

feat: an impressive action

microscopic: something so small it can only be seen with a microscope

plain: a large flat area

alignment: positioning in a line


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Mars mission headlines big week in space news


What is the name of the Chinese spacecraft?

How many kilometres did it travel to reach Mars?

What other name is Mars know as?

What other country had a spacecraft enter Mars’ orbit last week?

What is the only country to have successfully touched down on Mars so far?


1. Mission Profile
Create a one-page “Mission Profile” for Tianwen-1 that includes key facts and figures about the mission in an easy-to-read and eye-catching format. This task will require you to identify the most important information from the news article, so we suggest highlighting or jotting notes as you read. Include graphics or diagrams that support your information.

Time: allow 40 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science

2. Extension
Create your own glossary for this news story. Choose eight words from the story that you think younger readers may not be familiar with. Put the words into alphabetical order and write a simple definition for each word.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English; Science

Read with Kung Fu Punctuation
Pair up with the article between you and stand up to make it easy to demonstrate your Kung Fu Punctuation.

Practice reading one sentence at a time. Now read it again, while acting out the punctuation as you read.

Read and act three sentences before swapping with your partner. Have two turns each.

Now as a challenge ask your partner to read a sentence out loud while you try and act out the punctuation. Can you keep up?

Swap over. Try acting out two sentences. Are you laughing yet? Have fun acting out your punctuation.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you think there could have been life on Mars?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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