A telescope affiliated with NASA's Planetary Defense has spotted China's Tianwen-1 Mars spacecraft as it leaves the Earth.

The official Twitter account for NASA Asteroid Watch reported that during routine survey operations in the search for hazardous asteroids, their ATLAS-MLO telescope captured Tianwen-1 on its flight towards Mars.

Tianwen-1 Launch
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

China successfully launched its Tianwen-1 last Thursday, July 23, from its southern island of Hainan. Their spacecraft trio includes an orbiter that will remain above Mars' surface. The Tianwen-1 mission also has a lander that will carry the Mars rover that will explore and gather data.

The views of Tianwen-1 were snapped by a program from NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. It scans the sky for asteroids and space debris, following and mapping their trajectories to see if any of them could pose a risk.


China Joining the Space Race

The move to launch the Tianwen-1 mission on Thursday was seen as a move by the industrial and technological giant to join the Space Race. A similar Mars-bound mission from the United States is also scheduled for launch within the month, if conditions allow. The latest Mars mission, set to deploy the Perseverance rover, is set on July 30. Like the Chinese Mars mission, its ETA to Mars is also sometime in February 2021.

READ MORE: China Is Set to Join the Mars Race With Tianwen Spacecraft Trio 

Chen Lan, an independent space analyst for "Go-Taikonauts!" said that with the move, China "will challenge the situation dominated by the US for half a century." In the late 1950s to the 1960s, Cold War Rivals US and USSR got into what is now known as the "Space Race." The two countries competed over technological advancements and space exploration milestones. While USSR was the first to achieve space exploration achievements with the first man and woman in space, sources argue that the US's successful Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 overshadows all previous achievements.

Courtesy of the ATLAS Program

The ATLAS-MLO telescope responsible for the latest shots of Tianwen-1 on its way to Mars is located in Hawaii. The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) is made up of two observatories, one being in the Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) in Hawaii. These installations are in charge of monitoring and identifying new celestial objects. The ATLAS program is also optimized for detecting small near-Earth objects far before they impact the planet.

Its latest discovery, a namesake comet that wandered across the sky on May 31, before shattering on April 11, 2020. The C/2019 Y4 Atlas Comet made a dazzling streak across the sky as it reached its closest approach to the sun, its perihelion. It was first discovered last December 2019. Since then, it has rapidly grown in terms of brightness, glowing brighter by about 27,500 times since it was first detected. By April 11, the Atlas Comet had broken apart shortly after its nucleus shattered.

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ATLAS-MLO's twin, ATLAS-HKO, is located 160km away at the Haleakala Observatory in the island of Maui. Aside from the two operational ATLAS locations, two more asteroid-hunting telescopes are planned to complete a four-fold near-Earth detection program. NASA has confirmed in a 2018 statement that they are allotting US$3.8 million over the next four years to support two more observatories - with the third one initially planned in South Africa, south of the Equator.