Tianwen-1 third anniversary

Today is the third anniversary of Tianwen-1, which was launched in 23 July 2020. During the first year of the mission I was tracking it with great detail and writing a lot of posts. A fundamental part of this work was the help of AMSAT-DL. Using its 20 metre antenna in Bochum, they tracked the spacecraft, decoded telemetry and provided live coverage of many of the key mission events in their Youtube livestream. At some point the reception of Tianwen-1’s telemetry at Bochum got completely automated, as we described in a paper in the GNU Radio Conference 2021 proceedings.

To this date, the reception continues in Bochum almost every day, when the dish is not busy with other tasks such as tracking STEREO-A. This means that we get good coverage of the spacecraft orbital data, via the state vectors transmitted in its telemetry.

To celebrate the anniversary, I have updated my plot of the orbital parameters, which I made back in March 2022. The plot covers all the remote sensing orbit, from when it started on 8 November 2021, until the present day. To my knowledge, no manoeuvres have happened in this time (perhaps small station-keeping burns would be unnoticed without more careful analysis), so the changes in the orbit are just due to perturbations by forces such as the Sun’s gravity and the oblateness of Mars.

The updated plot can be seen below. We see that the periapsis latitude changes at a steady rate of 0.598 deg/day. The remote sensing orbit was designed so that the periapsis precessed in this way, which allows the spacecraft to cover all the surface of Mars from a low altitude in 301 days. The surface has now been covered twice, since the periapsis has moved from near the north pole to the south pole and back again to the north pole.

There is also an interesting change in eccentricity, which seems to be correlated with the latitude of the periapsis. The eccentricity is largest when the periapsis is over the south pole. In this case, the altitude of the periapsis decreases by 60 km, compared to when the periapsis is over the north pole. The inclination has remained mostly steady, although there seems to be a small perturbation with an amplitude of 0.1 deg.

The updated Jupyter notebook in which this plot was made can be found here.

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