China’s 70-meter-wide steerable reflector antenna has completed its operational checks and is ready to receive signals from the country’s Tianwen-1 mission, which is expected to enter the orbit of Mars next week.
The construction of the massive radio telescope to service the maiden voyage of China’s mission to Mars began in 2018 in the country’s northern region of Tianjin. It was finished just in time for the spacecraft’s approach to the Red Planet.
The new dish antenna, which was put in service on Thursday, is composed of 1,328 high-precision panels covering an area equal to ten basketball courts, according to local media reports.
Its dish has a diameter of 70 meters – unparalleled in Asia – though it’s still 30 meters smaller than the world’s largest steerable antenna at the Green Bank Radio Telescope in the American state of West Virginia.
China had been using three antennas with diameters of 35 to 50 meters in Beijing and Kunming. But they weren’t strong enough to assure quality reception of data from Mars, currently more than 180 million kilometers away from Earth.
The Martian orbit takes it as far as 400 million kilometers away from Earth when the two planets swing to opposite sides of the sun from each other. Crucially for the project, China can now link all four of the country’s telescopes to maximise their capabilities.
Tianwen-1, which was launched in July 2020, is scheduled to reach the gravitation field of Mars and perform breaking maneuvers on February 10, one day before the eve of the Chinese New Year.
The ambitious project by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) aims to deploy a Mars orbiter and rover on its surface. If the landing of the vehicle is a success, China will become the second country to successfully operate a rover on Mars after the US.
The Chinese scientists plan to use the Tianwen-1 mission to search for evidence of past and current life on the planet, explore its soil and atmosphere, characterize water distribution and draw maps of the Martian surface, among other things.
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