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Tianwen: China’s Mars Probe May Answer Qu Yuan’s Questions To Heaven

Concept illustration released in 2016 shows what the Mars rover and lander would look like. Image courtesy of by the lunar probe and space project center of the Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

China.org.cn released a news report about China’s new planetary exploration mission on 9 May 2020, revealing “Tianwen” as the name of the mission:

Fifty years ago, China successfully launched its first satellite into space. In 2003, the country’s first manned spacecraft blasted off. Four years later in 2007, its first moon orbiter was launched. And now in 2020, on the country’s Space Day, China unveiled the name of its new planetary exploration mission: “Tianwen.”

Just like China’s moon orbiter Chang-e and its quantum science satellite Mozi, the name Tianwen is also deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture and has special significance. It comes from the long poem “Tianwen,” or “Questions to Heaven,” written by Qu Yuan, one of the greatest Chinese poets who lived during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).

In over 1,500 Chinese characters, the poem raises more than a hundred questions concerning the origin of the universe, the structure of heaven and earth, the alternation of day and night, and the movement of stars. Qu Yuan even asks about myths and legends, as well as the rise and fall of dynasties. While many of the rhetorical questions about historical events reflect Qu Yuan’s political views, his imagination and questioning of the universe and heavenly bodies demonstrate ancient Chinese people’s pursuit of the unknown.

China’s planetary exploration missions also inherit the spirit of the poem “Tianwen.” Curious about outer space and extraterrestrial life, China plans to launch the country’s first Mars probe, on a Long March-5 rocket in 2020. The mission is named Tianwen-1, and it aims to complete orbiting, landing and roving with this one launch. Mars is the most “Earth-like” planet in the solar system. It is surrounded by an atmosphere, has a suitable temperature, and a rotation time similar to that of the Earth. Hence, exploring Mars is of great scientific value. Tianwen-1 has inherited the hope of the ancient Chinese people for exploring outer space, and is marching towards the opening-up of a second home for mankind.

The names of China’s space missions always reflect the country’s history and culture, whilst embodying a sense of romanticism. The Tianwen series, pays tribute to the past with its inherited spirit, and it will light the way to the future through exploration and innovation.

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