In an important milestone, China successfully lands the Zhurong rover on Mars


China’s Zhurong Mars rover, mounted on a rocket-propelled lander, fell off its orbiting Tianwen-1 mothership on Friday and landed on the red planet, official news outlets confirmed. This is a superpower achievement that underscores the growing capabilities of the Chinese space program.

The Chinese space agency confirmed that Zhurong, named after the fire god in Chinese mythology, landed on a vast plain called Utopia Planitia at 7:18 pm on Friday. EDT (7:18 a.m. Saturday, Beijing time) after a fiery jump through the thin Martian atmosphere.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Director of Space Research at NASA Headquarters, congratulated China on the successful landing. tweet“Together with the global scientific community, I look forward to the important contributions this mission will make to human understanding of the red planet.”

Like NASA’s previous Perseverance rover, Zhurong relied on a heat shield and protective aeroshell to protect him from the extreme temperatures generated after hitting the atmosphere at nearly three miles per second. Once through the plasma heating zone, a large parachute probably unfolded as planned, slowing the vehicle dramatically to subsonic speeds.

An artistic impression of China’s Zhurong rover on the surface of Mars after its landing craft rolled off.

China Global Television Network

About seven minutes after it hit the atmosphere, the lander was programmed to detach from its parachute and fire small rocket engines to allow a powerful descent to the surface.

After extensive testing and checkouts – China has not disclosed the rover’s schedule – two ramps will unfold, allowing the six-wheel rover to roll from the lander’s top deck to the surface for at least three months.

“Tianwen-1 will orbit, land, and release a rover on the first attempt,” the mission manager wrote in Nature Astronomy magazine prior to takeoff. “No planetary missions have ever been implemented this way. If this were successful, it would be a major technological breakthrough.”

The Tianwen-1 orbiter and the Zhurong lander arrived in orbit around Mars on February 10, seven months after launch from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Eight days later, NASA’s $ 2.4 billion Perseverance rover landed successfully in the Jezero crater on the edge of the Utopia Planitia.

The nuclear-powered Perseverance is NASA’s ninth and most technologically advanced Mars lander to successfully surface. He has a number of sophisticated cameras, spectrometers, and other instruments that can be used to look for signs of past microbial life.

It also has a sophisticated sample caching mechanism that can be used to collect rock and soil samples for later return to Earth and deploy a small helicopter – Ingenuity – that has performed five successful test flights to date.

Tianwen-1 is the first purely Chinese mission on the red planet and the most advanced interplanetary probe to date. The combination of a powerful orbiter and a surface rover for China’s first attempt at Mars is a harbinger of more ambitious missions.

Only two other nations – the United States and the Soviet Union – have ever landed spaceships on Mars. NASA’s record is nine successful landings in ten attempts, while Russia suffered eight landings with only one partial success.

“There surely is life on Mars! We are the life of the party!” The Chinese space agency tweeted.

The Tianwen-1 mothership, which will remain in orbit around the Mars poles during its two-year mission, is equipped with seven instruments, including high- and medium-resolution cameras. a ground penetrating radar; a mineralogy spectrometer; a magnetometer; and two charged particle detectors.

The 530-pound rover, roughly the size of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed on Mars in 2004, is equipped with six instruments, including a multispectral camera, terrain camera, ground penetrating radar, magnetic field detector, and meteorology Sensors and others.

As with Perseverance, Chinese air traffic controllers cannot operate the Zhurong rover in real time. Mars and Earth are currently separated by 198 million miles, and radio signals traveling at 186,000 miles per second take nearly 18 minutes to cross the Gulf.

Instead, air traffic controllers will link up commands for the rover and then wait for the results to be relayed back to Earth via the Tianwen-1 orbiter.

China has successfully sent two rovers to the moon, including one that landed on the far side never visited before. An attempt to send an orbiter on a Russian rocket to Mars in 2011 failed when the Zenith booster malfunctioned.

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