These are heady days for the Chinese space program.
On the heels of a successful 2019 mission to the dark side of the moon and the launch of the core of an ambitious low Earth orbit space station, the Chinese National Space Administration has done what only NASA has accomplished before — landing a rover on Mars and then setting it into motion on the surface of the planet.
The Zhurong rover, which is named after an ancient fire god in Chinese mythology, rolled off its lander on Saturday and has begun its planned three-month mission.
The rover carries instruments to study the planet’s surface rocks and atmosphere using radar, spectroscopy and a magnetic field detector. It will also look for signs of life, including any subsurface water or ice.
The solar-powered, 530-pound and six-wheeled robot will be exploring Utopia Planitia in Mars’ northern hemisphere – the general area where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1975. Zhurong will join NASA’s much larger (more than 2,200 pound) Perseverance and Curiosity rovers now operating on Mars.
“We hope we can get a comprehensive covering of Martian topography, landform and environment, and the exploratory data of the radar detecting the Martian subsurface during one Martian year,” said deputy chief commander of the mission, Zhang Yuhua.
“By doing so, our country will have our own abundant and first-hand data about Martian resources,” she said.
While the rover will itself not bring many new technologies and approaches to Mars science, the architecture of the mission is unprecedented. The Tianwen-1 spacecraft that brought the rover to Mars orbited the planet for more than three months before deploying the lander and rover. Part of the spacecraft will remain in orbit as a communications hub.
All NASA missions have flown directly to the surface without first going into orbit around Mars.
While the Utopia Planitia region was explored to some extent by Viking 2, much more is known about the region now then was known in the 1970s.
The plains are part of the northern lowlands of Mars, and some theorize that the region was once covered by a great “Northern Ocean.” This would have been some four billion years ago, when Mars was warmer and wetter than today. Utopia Planitia lies lower than features that have been proposed as two sets of shorelines, remnants from such early Martian oceans.
Some of the water from that hypothesized ocean may once have percolated underground and could still be frozen there today. More recently, scientists have proposed that much of the water on Mars was incorporated into the surface and mantle as hydrated minerals.
One goal of the Tianwen-1 mission is to understand the distribution of ice in the region, which envisioned human colonists on Mars might some day use to sustain themselves.
China has plans to build on its successes on Mars, on the moon with their dark side landing and lunar sample return and their launching of the first module for their low Earth space station by lunar landing with taikonauts — the Chinese term for astronauts — within a few years and to build out a full space station (“Tiangong”) that can house six space travelers for up to six months.
The Chinese space agency has announced a June launch for three taikonauts who will stay on the recently-launched station for three months. In all, China is planning 11 missions in 2021 and 2022 to complete the space station complex, including three module launches, four cargo ship missions and four crewed missions on “Shenzhou” spacecraft.
The completed outpost is expected to be about one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station, a project from which China was barred by the United States.
China is constructing the space station alone, but it worked with the United Nations to select an international suite of instruments to fly to the orbiting complex after its completion. The Chinese space agency also did partner on its Mars rover mission with the European Space Agency, the French space agency and the Argentine and Austrian space agencies in preparing for the mission or setting up communication receiving stations.
While there has been virtually no collaboration between Chinese and American space agencies over the decades, there has been and still is robust cooperation between space scientists.
In a statement, newly-confirmed NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that “as the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the United States and the world look forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet. I look forward to future international discoveries, which will help inform and develop the capabilities needed to land human boots on Mars.”
The Planetary Society’s CEO Bill Nye expressed optimism that China’s Tianwen-1 mission might open up opportunities for collaboration between the country and the United States, which have had tricky international relations for decades over matters ranging from intellectual property to security concerns and human rights.
“Here is an example where the collaboration is going to be between scientists,” Nye told Space.com. “Yes, I understand the concern of the military. The technology, they don’t want to transfer it without [addressing] pirating, abuse of intellectual property rights and so on. But just that people are talking — that scientists in China and scientists in the West are talking about Mars — is really significant.”
But geopolitics and those military concerns do loom large. Testifying in the House last week, Nelson pointed to the Zhurong mission and Chinese goals on the moon as reasons to increase the NASA budget and speed the return of astronauts to the moon and plans for future human landing on Mars. He called China “a very aggressive competitor” in space.
The woman selected by Nelson to be his deputy, former astronaut Pamela Melroy, said during a confirmation hearing last week that she remains in support of the current law forbidding NASA from most activities with China without express support from Congress, colloquially referred to as the Wolf Amendment.
“China has made their goals very clear — to take away space superiority from the United States,” she said. “So, we are right to be concerned, when you add the other concerns of intellectual property theft and aggressive behavior in space.
NASA officials have also been critical of China for the uncontrolled and potentially dangerous return to Earth of the core stage of the rocket that sent the central module for the Tiangong space station into orbit in April. And back in 2007, China shot down one of their defunct weather satellites with a controversial anti-satellite missile. Pentagon officials worry that China is developing a broad anti-satellite capacity.
While the Chinese space agency is moving ahead impressively on many fronts, its missions remain basic compared with past and current NASA missions and accomplishments. I write this not to diminish the Chinese missions but to put them into some perspective because most will be trying to do what NASA did years or decades ago.
In addition to plans for a crewed mission to the moon, China is planning a decade-long mission to sample an asteroid and to get close to a comet. Orbiters for Venus and Jupiter have also been proposed and China plans to launch a space telescope in 2024 similar to the Hubble, which has been sending back images and data for 30 years.
One area where some technological and scientific competition does exist is when it comes to bringing samples of Mars soil and rocks to Earth.
China has announced plans to send a second lander to Mars by 2028 and to bring samples back from the planet. This is a very challenging task since it involves launching a rocket from Mars, which would be a very difficult first.
NASA and the European Space Agency are already working on a sample return mission, with hopes that soil and rocks collected by Perseverance can be brought to Earth in 2031. China’s mission might come together this decade, setting up a science space race of sorts.
If the Chinese space agency is able to pull off a sample return before the NASA/ESA effort, it would be a major scientific and technological coup for them.
So the Chinese National Space Administration has great ambitions and now a proven track record for space achievements. Will the presence of a rival boost NASA budgets and goals and speed up timetables in a concerted effort to stay ahead?
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.