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Traffic jams on Mars? Three wheeled vehicles will be driving on its surface, the Chinese Zhurong rover has landed

China only launched its first satellite half a century ago. Already, it is the second country in the world to have a rover on the red planet, after only the United States.

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International space experts hail the landing of China’s rover on Mars

Space experts from different countries and foreign media have applauded the successful landing of China’s lander and rover on the Mars surface on Saturday.

traffic jams on mars

Traffic Jams on Mars

The Chinese Tianwen-1 mission to Mars is entering one of the most important phases, namely the exploration of the Martian surface by the Zhurong rover. On the night of May 14/15, it successfully landed on the surface of the Red Planet.

The landing of the Zhurong rover is a bit of a journey back in time. If you look at the appearance of this rover, you will immediately notice the similarity to the twin Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004 but no longer work. In two years, the Rosalind-Franklin rover is to boast a similar achievement, which also uses solar panels as a power source, but the next few days will belong to the Chinese Zhurong.

The successful landing of the Zhurong lander and rover on Mars occurred around 1:11 CET on May 15

On the surface, there seems to be nothing new about this Mars landing. First, the rover capsule enters the Martian atmosphere, passes through its upper layers, when the heat shield gets hotter, the parachutes open and the rover lands on the surface with the use of rocket engines. Well, apparently. In practice, this landing was different than any before.

There was no direct transmission, but there was something to watch

Do not expect a direct transmission by the Chinese space agency. However, those interested in landing can count on interesting messages on the web, for example, this observatory in Bochum. It is a long stream, but you can learn interesting things from it.

In addition, the operators of the Tianwen-1 mission have already surprised us with a video of the entry into the orbit of Mars, as well as selves made by the probe, which even NASA did not manage. So who knows how the moment of the Zhurong rover’s landing will be captured?

Zhurong landed similarly, and yet slightly different, to other rovers

First, Zhurong is not landing on the move. It has been orbiting Mars since February, attached to the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which will remain in this orbit to continue research on the planet and fulfill the important task of the station transmitting data from the rover to Earth. It is true that NASA has a well-developed telecommunications network in orbit, but Zhurong is after all the work of the CNSA, so it should not be surprising that China wants to control the data at first. Which will eventually be shared with the world community anyway, similar to the data from the lunar rovers. But whoever will be first to access them, the former will be able to draw conclusions.

A photo of Mars from the Tianwen-1 probe Image of Mars from the Tianwen-1 spacecraft
High-resolution photos were taken by the Tianwen-1 probe after it entered Mars orbit

So we have the first difference, Perseverance entered the Martian atmosphere at about 20,000 kilometers per hour, Zhurong will start landing moving a little slower, probably around 17,000 kilometers per hour. Before that, the orbiter will lower its orbit. The parachutes were opened at an altitude of at least 4 km, when the speed decreased to about 1600 km / h (as with the landing of other rovers).

At an altitude of 3 kilometers, the heat shield was to be thrown back, and then the proximity radar using LIDAR was launched. The lander’s legs will also be unfolded. Wait a minute … a lander? Exactly. This is the second difference compared to Perseverance and its predecessor. Zhurong will not land alone, but with the lander. However, it is difficult to say whether it will act as an independent research instrument when the rover moves away in search of interesting objects on the surface.

Sojourner, who landed on Mars in 1997 together with Pathfinder, did a similar thing. But that landing was also different. Back then, the lander was surrounded by an inflatable fabric cocoon that cushioned the fall to the surface. This technique was repeated on two more rovers, but the next ones were too heavy. Zhurong, although much lighter than Perseverance (weighs about 240 kilograms), will also only use a rocket motor to reduce the sink speed and ultimately the flexibility of the lander’s legs.

China does not have as good Martian intelligence as NASA or ESA, so the lander probably surveyed its surroundings prior to touchdown to make sure it landed in a safe place. Earlier, the photos taken from orbit by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft helped to precisely select the landing site.

This solution is reminiscent of Perseverance, which also benefited from such autonomy in the landing procedure. But we don’t know much about how CNSA wants to do it. In any case, the lander will land on Mars at a speed of no more than a dozen km / h (these are the plans), so it is safe for the entire apparatus.

Where did Zhurong land? How long will it run?

The landing site is Utopia Planitia, which remembers the Viking 2 landing. On the fringes of this Mars plain, she explores InSight (to the south) and Perseverance (to the west). The target of the Zhurong lander and rover is to locate approximately halfway between the Viking 2 and InSight landing sites, and the same distance from Perseverance.

Utopia Planitia is an easy landing area compared to other places on Mars, but that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting. It is here that there is a great chance to find interesting sediments and permafrost that may be hidden just below the surface, and which rover instruments will be able to detect.

Zhurong landing site
Locations for successful missions on Mars. Chinese Zhurong may join them soon

Thanks to a successful landing, there will already be three rovers on Mars that will be able to explore it. And of course, the Ingenuity helicopter, which is still airworthy. The core phase of Zhurong’s mission involves 90 days of surface research. It is known, however, that this time may be significantly longer. After all, Spirit and Opportunity were also to study Mars for three months.

Zhurong rover lander
The CNSA says Zhurong can travel at a speed of 200 meters per hour. This is a lot from the perspective of Mars rovers

Landing on Mars, however, is a very difficult and unpredictable operation. ESA employees who have failed this trick twice already know something about it . Therefore, the success of the CNSA is all the more worthy of recognition.

Instruments on board the Zhurong rover

The rover is equipped with 13 instruments. The most important of them are:

  • MSCam, a camera for spectral observations,
  • NaTeCam, i.e. the eyes of the rover, two cameras for photographing the surface and navigation,
  • MSC, i.e. a weather station equipped with an anemometer, microphones, thermometers, and a barometer,
  • MoMAG, in turn, is a magnetometer for measuring the magnetic field,
  • MarSCoDe is a spectrometer equipped with a laser (LIBS), which will be used to analyze the composition of rocks,
  • RoPeR will study Mars below its surface using radar techniques similar to Perseverance.

46th mission to Mars and only the 2nd country that managed to land successfully

The Tianwen-1 mission is the 46th research mission in history to target the Red Planet. Only in 19 cases was the initial plan even partially implemented. The most unlucky people here are the Soviet Union and Russia, but the latter will have its chance with the mission of the Rosalind Franklin rover. This is because it will also land on Mars along with the lander that Roscosmos engineers worked on.

Thanks to the successful Zhurong landing, China has become the second country after the United States that will be able to conduct research on Mars directly on its surface.

China is hungry for success in space exploration

Regardless of the further fate of the Zhurong rover, the Tianwen-1 mission is already a great success of the Chinese Mars exploration program.

Zhurong name
Unlike NASA or ESA, the CNSA agency is quite sluggish about promoting its achievements. An example is the name of the rover, which was announced only a few weeks before landing. It is the name of the god of war and fire according to Chinese mythology

This assumes the implementation of the mission to bring samples from the surface of this planet in the years 2028-2030. China also wants to go to the vicinity of Jupiter and possibly land on the surface of the moon Callisto, which would certainly be an unprecedented event. They also want to leave a mark in space by sending a probe towards the borders of the solar system.

Source: nature, national-geographic, CNSA, inf. own