The Chinese rover Zhurong left the landing platform and made its first “steps” on the surface of Mars. Confirmation of the operation came to Earth in the form of images captured by the rover’s navigation cameras.
The Zhurong rover was flown to Mars by the Tianwen-1 orbital probe and landed in the southern part of the Utopia Plain in mid-May this year, becoming the third active rover on the planet and the first ever from a country other than the USA.
The Chinese experts who developed it pursued two goals – to learn how to work with rovers in the conditions on Mars and to conduct scientific research on its surface. In particular, the rover will search for deposits of water ice, it will study the composition of rocks and soil, as well as the structure of the subsurface layer of the planet.
In total, there are seven instruments on board the rover: a multispectral and two optical cameras, a ground-penetrating radar, a laser spectrometer, a magnetometer, and weather sensors.
The landing platform, in turn, does not carry scientific instruments onboard. It will perform purely official functions – it will carry out communication and control, and its main task was already completed when the rover descended to the surface.
The official date for the descent was kept secret and nobody knew if the Chinese would take several days or weeks until the decision is made. So, it came as a surprise that the rover was sent away shortly after it checked its systems and sent its first images to Earth on May 21.
If we compare the Zhurong rover to NASA’s Perseverance, the only similarity is their goal – to search for signs of life or remnants of its past existence.
Perseverance is the largest rover ever built and weighs 1,025 kilograms while Zhurong is only 240 kilograms. NASA’s spacecraft is equipped with the latest power technologies while Zhurong is based on the concept of older American rovers like Spirit and Opportunity.
It will be powered by solar panels but unlike NASA’s examples, its panels can change their orientation to adapt to the angle of incidence of the sun’s rays. Thus, it will receive the maximum amount of energy, which is especially important for wintering on Mars.
American rovers had to drive into the hills in the fall so that the solar panels collect enough light from the low spring sun to wake up from the long Martian winter.
The rover is expected to operate at least 90 sols on Mars, exchanging data with Earth through the orbiting probe, which is in an 8.2-hour relay orbit. It is not yet known whether Zhurong’s work will be extended and how this will affect the course of the entire mission. Most of NASA’s missions to Mars have seen one or more extensions like Opportunity, which operated on the surface for about 15 years.
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• China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. (n.d.). Let’s go! “Zhurong” rover successfully sailed on the surface of Mars. 微信公众平台.
• Kooser, A. (2021, May 20). China’s Zhurong Mars rover sends back its striking first images of the red planet. CNET. • Malik, T. (2021, May 22). China’s Zhurong Mars rover rolls onto the Martian surface (photos). Space.com.