PICTURED: A rendition of the Zhurong rover and landing craft on Mars. Photo credit: Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)
BEIJING, China. May 14th, 2021. Just after the clock struck 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time, China deployed its very own Mars rover onto the surface of the Red Planet, becoming just the second Earthling nation to do so.
Named “Zhurong” after an ancient fire god, in line with the Chinese National Space Agency’s preference for ancient history, it arrived from the orbiter called “Questions to Heaven” or Tianwen-1, aboard their Long March-5 rocket.
It is an incredible achievement. Tianwen-1 and Zhurong are their first Mars orbiter, lander and rover. They were launched together, and they all succeeded. No country has ever succeeded in all three on their first try.
President Xi Jinping sent a letter to the team that oversaw the controls and landing of the various craft that stated: “Thanks to your courage in the face of challenges and pursuit of excellence, China is now among the leading countries in planetary exploration. The country and people will always remember your outstanding achievements”.
Just as Perseverance arrived months ago, there were no problems during the launching, descent, or landing of the rover, with the only difference between the two involving a “final hazard avoidance hover phase” that allowed the Chinese lander to select a suitable landing zone, before deploying a ramp to allow the rover to gently roll down onto the surface.
Arriving on the Utopia Planitia flatland with a suite of instruments for detecting water, China is also preparing a sample-return mission so that the material can be tested for evidence of sub-surface life with the most sensitive and advanced instruments available.
Zhurong is now the eighth rover currently active on the Red Planet.
The Chinese space program has rocketed forward over the last decade, conducting five consecutive lunar missions in quick succession while peppering the atmosphere with advanced satellites, and now to crown off their frenzy of focused activity they have put a rover on Mars.
Like Perseverance, Zhurong will spend its first few days performing system checks, taking panoramic imagery, and preparing to survey the area for potential pockets of water hidden beneath the surface. Its ground penetrating radar was tested in a Chinese desert similar to Mars’ surface, where it was able to detect water in the underlying strata.
Also carrying survey equipment, the orbiter will map the surface of Mars at 50 centimeters per pixel in search of both landing zones for sample return missions in the future, and for places that could contain water.
One of the nerdiest pieces of kit, along with its cameras, is a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy spectrometer, an enormous designation for what is essentially a laser that blasts small rocks apart to observe chemical reactions, thus determining their composition in real time.
It also contains a weather station that will monitor things like air pressure, wind speed and direction, and temperature.
Speaking with Spacenews, Finnish space engineer Maria Hieta said: “Combining the measurements of all the weather stations will help us to better understand the Martian climate and will undoubtedly bring new information, and will also help us prepare for future human exploration”.
At the time of writing, no images have been pieced together of the Utopia Planitia. Not waiting around, it was on Saturday the 15th that Zhang Rongqiao, chief planner of the Tianwen-1 mission, said that CNSA has already started planning for their sample-return mission.