Zhurong is China’s first rover to land on another planet. Part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars conducted by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the rover has been on the red planet for over three months. To celebrate the achievement, China released a set of striking photos from the Martian surface.
So far, the rover has traveled just over 1 kilometer and has already exceeded its initial objectives. It was only expected to operate on Mars for three months, so everything it accomplishes from now on is a bonus.
The rover’s main objective is to look at the Martian geology and atmosphere, surveying the minerals and rocks it encounters, as well as the soil and ice (should it come across it). The rover is also equipped to sample the Martian atmosphere.
The rover is surveying a geologic area called Utopia Planitia, the largest known impact basin in the solar system, with an estimated diameter of 3300 km. This is also where the Viking 2 lander touched down and started exploring in 1976.
However, the orbiter will have to pause its exploration in a couple of weeks, when Mars and the Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun (almost in a straight line). During this period, called the Mars solar conjunction, communications with the rover will be interrupted.
But this is unlikely to end the rover’s mission, as everything so far seems to be going smoothly. In addition, the Tianwen-1 Mars mission also consists of an orbiter that will continue to circle Mars. The orbiter has already been in place for over 400 days.
China’s ambitions to establish itself as an authentic space power seem more serious than ever. After launching the first module on its new space station and launching astronauts on the module, China is focusing much of its space efforts on the moon but also has its eyes on other targets, such as Mars.
For those of us eager to learn more about the solar system, this new space race looks like a treat.
At the same time the Zhurong rover is carrying out its mission, the American Perseverance rover is also exploring Mars, with much more ambitious objectives. For starters, Perseverance is expected to last at least a few years on Mars, and at over a ton, it dwarfs Zhurong’s 240 kilograms (529 lbs). Perseverance is also equipped with more and more diverse sensors, capable of studying Mars in more detail. It is also accompanied by the Ingenuity helicopter, the first man-made object to take flight on a foreign planet. Ingenuity has also covered more than 2.67 km (1.66 mi) in flight, accompanying Perseverance, which covered 1.97 km (1.22 mi).
There’s still a big gap between the US and the Chinese space programs, but with unprecedented spending and a lot to prove to the world, China’s eager to close in on that gap.