On March 14, China’s house program took an enormous leap ahead when it landed a rover on Mars for the primary time, in response to state media. China is now solely the second nation to land efficiently on Mars. The rover, named Zhurong (after the god of fireplace in historical Chinese language mythology), joins NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers as the one wheeled robots trekking across the floor of the planet.
“That is actually a milestone for the Chinese language house program,” says Chi Wang, the director of the Nationwide Area Science Middle on the Chinese language Academy of Sciences. “It signifies Chinese language house exploration steps out of the Earth-Moon system and heads for the [Mars] planetary system. A mission like this demonstrates China has the potential to discover the whole photo voltaic system.”
Zhurong is a part of the Tianwen-1 Mars mission that China launched final July, the identical 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 floor, whereas China held Tianwen-1 in orbit for a number of months to search for an appropriate touchdown website for Zhurong. It will definitely selected Utopia Planitia, the identical area the place NASA’s Viking 2 spacecraft landed in 1976. Tianwen-1 contains each an orbiter and the Zhurong rover.
NASA has had a string of current successes with Mars missions, however don’t let that idiot you—half of all missions to Mars finish in failure. The Soviet Union beforehand landed a spacecraft on Mars in 1971, however communication was misplaced simply 110 seconds later. As just lately as 2017, the European Area Company’s Schiaparelli lander crashed on its option to the Martian floor. China’s first try on Mars was really as a part of Russia’s 2011 Fobos-Grunt mission to discover Mars and its moon Phobos. That spacecraft failed to go away Earth’s orbit and ended up reentering Earth’s ambiance months later, main China to pursue its personal unbiased mission to Mars.
Don’t count on Zhurong to match as much as, say, Perseverance. The latter weighs over one metric ton, is nuclear-powered, has 23 cameras, carries an illustration system to transform carbon dioxide to oxygen, can take and stow samples that shall be returned to Earth in the future, and even brought a new helicopter to the planet. The previous is simply 240 kilograms, solar-powered, carries solely six devices, and is anticipated to final simply 90 Martian days (although it might very effectively survive for longer).
Tianwen-1’s function is to make use of its 13 devices (seven on the orbiter, six on the rover) to review the geology and soil mineralogy of Mars, map its water ice distribution, probe the electromagnetic and gravitational forces of the planet, and characterize its floor local weather and setting. Whereas the orbiter will observe and measure these items from a world perspective and snap photos right down to a two-meter decision, Zhurong will dwelling in on factors of intrigue on the floor. It should use spectroscopy to seek out out what the soil is product of, measure magnetic fields on the bottom, and monitor climate adjustments like temperature and winds.
Maybe most intriguing is that Zhurong has a ground-penetrating radar that may let it peer into exercise and constructions underground 100 meters deep—10 instances additional than Perseverance’s radar. The hope is that this instrument will have the ability to detect potential reserves of water ice underground. Water sources may very well be a important a part of establishing a colony on Mars in the future. Utopia Planitia particularly is “a comparatively protected place to land and a attainable place to seek out water,” says Wang.
China’s no stranger to extraterrestrial landings—the nation’s lunar exploration program has seen three profitable rover landings on the moon in lower than 10 years. However that didn’t essentially make it simpler to get to Mars. The gap between the 2 planets creates an 18-minute time delay in communication. The entire touchdown course of must be achieved robotically, with none risk for floor management to manually intervene. The nation’s by no means completed that earlier than. Now it is aware of it could.
“This, to me, says they’re getting proper up there by way of one of many world’s premier house companies,” says The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis. “Simply by the sheer undeniable fact that this has not been completed by many individuals. This isn’t a fluke; it’s not like they only randomly launched and obtained fortunate. They’ve clearly been working towards this.”
Though the notion of two nations with rovers on the planet additionally raises the specter of a rising rivalry between the US and China, which may be an oversimplification. Zhurong is nowhere close to the place Curiosity or Perseverance are. Davis factors out that the 2 nations really coordinated the trajectories of their respective 2020 launches to make sure they wouldn’t crash into each other. “Mars is massive,” he says. “With the ability to function a number of spacecraft there from a number of entities is feasible. It’s not like they’re going to run into one another and trigger issues.”
As a substitute, it’s attainable the mission may really open up extra alternatives for scientific collaboration. NASA is at the moment barred from working with the Chinese language house program, however the launch of peer-reviewed analysis by way of the general public press means there’s a possibility to check outcomes from comparable investigations performed by every nation’s rovers, corresponding to subsurface radar knowledge.
“From that perspective,” says Davis, “it’s very useful for house exploration to have a number of nations, a number of entities, doing this work. When it comes to pure science, I’m very excited to see what the mission uncovers.”
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