NASA asteroid hunter captures lucky view of China's Mars mission

Serendipity in space as Tianwen-1 photobombs a search for hazardous asteroids.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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The Long March 5 carrying Tianwen-1 to Mars on July 22.


The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (Atlas) has an important job to do: look out for "town killer," "city killer" and "county killer" asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth. But sometimes it sees more than just space rocks. 

The telescope project fortuitously caught sight of China's freshly launched Tianwen-1 Mars mission.

On Friday, the NASA Asteroid Watch Twitter account shared a GIF of the Atlas Maunoloa telescope's view of the Tianwen-1 spacecraft against a field of stars. Red lines point out the spacecraft's movement.

Tianwen-1 launched earlier this week and is scheduled to reach Mars in February, when it will attempt to land a rover on the red planet. 

China's effort is one of three major Mars missions leaving Earth this month. The United Arab Emirates already sent off its Hope probe and NASA plans to launch its Perseverance rover on July 30.  

Atlas is a joint project from NASA and the University of Hawaii. "It consists of two telescopes, 100 miles apart, which automatically scan the whole sky several times every night looking for moving objects," says the ATLAS site. The second telescope is located on the island of Maui.

The Atlas view of Tianwen-1 is a lovely goodbye view of an ambitious mission. We can also breathe easy considering it saw a spacecraft and not a worrisome asteroid.