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.