July 30, 2021

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China has landed a rover on Mars for the first time—here’s what happens next

On March 14, China’s space program took a huge leap forward when it landed a...

On March 14, China’s space program took a huge leap forward when it landed a rover on Mars for the first time, according to state media. China is now only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The rover, named Zhurong (after the god of fire in ancient Chinese mythology), joins NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers as the only wheeled robots trekking around the surface of the planet. 

“This is really a milestone for the Chinese space program,” says Chi Wang, the director of the National Space Science Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It signifies Chinese space exploration steps out of the Earth-Moon system and heads for the [Mars] planetary system. A mission like this demonstrates China has the capability to explore the entire solar system.”

Zhurong is part of the Tianwen-1 Mars mission that China launched last July, the same month as NASA’s launch of the Perseverance rover and the UAE’s launch of the Hope Mars Orbiter. All three made it to Martian orbit in February. Perseverance headed straight for the surface, while China held Tianwen-1 in orbit for a few months to look for a suitable landing site for Zhurong. It eventually chose Utopia Planitia, the same region where NASA’s Viking 2 spacecraft landed in 1976. Tianwen-1 comprises both an orbiter and the Zhurong rover.

NASA has had a string of recent successes with Mars missions, but don’t let that fool you—half of all missions to Mars end in failure. The Soviet Union previously landed a spacecraft on Mars in 1971, but communication was lost just 110 seconds later. As recently as 2017, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander crashed on its way to the Martian surface. China’s first attempt on Mars was actually as part of Russia’s 2011 Fobos-Grunt mission to explore Mars and its moon Phobos. That spacecraft failed to leave Earth’s orbit and ended up reentering Earth’s atmosphere months later, leading China to pursue its own independent mission to Mars.  

Don’t expect Zhurong to match up to, say, Perseverance. The latter weighs over one metric ton, is nuclear-powered, has 23 cameras, carries a demonstration system to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, can take and stow samples that will be returned to Earth one day, and even brought a new helicopter to the planet. The former is just 240 kilograms, solar-powered, carries only six instruments, and is expected to last just 90 Martian days (though it may very well survive for longer). 

Tianwen-1’s purpose is to use its 13 instruments (seven on the orbiter, six on the rover) to study the geology and soil mineralogy of Mars, map its water ice distribution, probe the electromagnetic and gravitational forces of the planet, and characterize its surface climate and environment. While the orbiter will observe and measure these things from a global perspective and snap images down to a two-meter resolution, Zhurong will home in on points of intrigue at the surface. It will use spectroscopy to find out what the soil is made of, measure magnetic fields on the ground, and track weather changes like temperature and winds. 

Perhaps most intriguing is that Zhurong has a ground-penetrating radar that will let it peer into activity and structures underground 100 meters deep—10 times further than Perseverance’s radar. The hope is that this instrument will be able to detect potential reserves of water ice underground. Water resources could be a critical part of establishing a colony on Mars one day. Utopia Planitia in particular is “a relatively safe place to land and a possible place to find water,” says Wang. 

China’s no stranger to extraterrestrial landings—the country’s lunar exploration program has seen three successful rover landings on the moon in less than 10 years. But that didn’t necessarily make it easier to get to Mars. The distance between the two planets creates an 18-minute time delay in communication. The whole landing process has to be accomplished automatically, without any possibility for ground control to manually intervene. The country’s never done that before. Now it knows it can.

“This, to me, says they’re getting right up there in terms of one of the world’s premier space agencies,” says The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis. “Just by the sheer fact that this has not been done by many people. This isn’t a fluke; it’s not like they just randomly launched and got lucky. They’ve clearly been working toward this.”

Although the notion of two countries with rovers on the planet also raises the specter of a growing rivalry between the US and China, that may be an oversimplification. Zhurong is nowhere near where Curiosity or Perseverance are. Davis points out that the two countries actually coordinated the trajectories of their respective 2020 launches to ensure they wouldn’t crash into one another. “Mars is big,” he says. “Being able to operate multiple spacecraft there from multiple entities is possible. It’s not like they’re going to run into each other and cause problems.”

Instead, it’s possible the mission might actually open up more opportunities for scientific collaboration. NASA is currently barred from working with the Chinese space program, but the release of peer-reviewed research through the public press means there’s an opportunity to compare results from similar investigations conducted by each country’s rovers, such as subsurface radar data. 

“From that perspective,” says Davis, “it’s very beneficial for space exploration to have multiple countries, multiple entities, doing this work. In terms of pure science, I’m very excited to see what the mission uncovers.”

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