AsianScientist (May. 20, 2021) – China’s Zhurong rover transmitted its first pictures of Mars’ landscape yesterday, indicating that it’s all systems go for planetary exploration. With its growing space presence, China is the third country to successfully land a rover on the Red Planet—and on its first try, too.
Space missions are typically a tale of three parts: orbiting, landing and roaming. Before probes can land, they start off by orbiting, examining the surface from afar. Initial explorations usually stop at that. In an iterative sense, it then takes several more missions—and spacecrafts—to orbit and land, and eventually to orbit, land and roam.
While the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration took decades to go from orbiting to roaming, Zhurong did all these in one go on China’s initial voyage to the Red Planet. Dubbed the Tianwen-1 mission, this trip sent an orbiter carrying the Zhurong robot, traversing space for 10 months until it got its first glimpse of Mars in February this year.
After separating from Tianwen-1, the rover touched down on a relatively featureless expanse called the Utopia Planitia on May 15, 2021. Its nine-minute landing effort was conducted autonomously, with the orbiter identifying a safe spot for Zhurong’s descent.
When the US deployed its Viking 2 probe in the same region back in 1976, the craft didn’t get to explore much beyond the initial landing site. In contrast, the six-wheeled Zhurong robot will be covering much more ground, powered by four large solar panels.
Equipped with high-resolution cameras to record the planet’s physical features, China’s rover also carries lasers to analyze soil chemistry and probe for minerals, as well as radars to detect water ice beneath the surface. Unlike other rovers currently exploring Mars, Zhurong will be the first to survey the magnetic field, which could provide clues to how the planet lost its atmosphere and became cold and barren.
While the Martian environment is sparse and arid, scientists have good reason to believe that its craters, sand dunes and mud volcanoes contain the secrets to understanding the planet’s geology and history. Satellite sensors previously found evidence pointing to deeply hidden ice stores in Utopia Planitia, with the region suggested to have held a vast ocean eons ago.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) hopes to get three months of service from the robot, as the latest in a series of milestones for China’s thriving space sector.
Just last April, the country sent into orbit the core capsule of the Tiangong space station, which is envisioned to soon host crew members and carry out experiments in space. CNSA also launched the unmanned Chang’e-5 probe in December 2020, which brought back surface samples from the Moon for the first time in over four decades.
These feats are already significant on their own, but taken together, China is now lightyears closer to achieving its vision of crewed landings by the 2030s. As Zhurong begins its Martian mission, the rover’s discoveries will surely be vital to piecing together a more complete history of both the planet and the universe at large.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Weibo.
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