For the first time in its history, China has landed a rover on the surface of Mars, becoming the second country, alongside the United States, to successfully touch down.
China’s Tianwen or ‘Questions for Heaven’ mission made successful contact with Mars at roughly 19:11pm on the 14th of May but, because of the extreme distance between the two planets, confirmation was delayed until around 19:40pm.
Tianwen officially began in July 2020 when the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) launched the Mars ‘Zhurong’ rover into space by means of a Chinese-manufactured Long March 5 rocket. After almost a six-month voyage, Tianwen reached Mars and settled into an orbit in February this year.
After orbiting for nearly three months, Tianwen approached its landing zone, the most precarious part of the voyage.
Everything from the initial approach, entry into the Martian atmosphere and controlling the landing were pre-programmed, with no option for real-time intervention from ground control, should anything go awry.
The craft, protected from the violent turbulence and extreme temperatures by a heat shield, parachute-landed safely in the Utopia Planitia region of Mars and deployed the Zhurong rover successfully.
Named after the Chinese God of Fire, Zhurong is a six-wheel, five-ton rover equipped with several instruments, including two panoramic cameras, ground-penetrating radar, weather measuring devices and a magnetic field detector.
Zhurong will spend about 90 days on the planet and is tasked with looking for water ice as well as studying the composition of the Martian soil.
Utopia Planitia was chosen as the landing area because of the unique properties of the region. Located near the landing site of NASA’s 1976 Viking mission, scientists believe that there is a significant amount of water in this region.
While Zhurong works tirelessly taking measurements on Mars’ surface, the Tianwen orbiter, which remained in orbit while Zhurong made its descent, will be working in conjunction with the rover, acting as a relay beacon between Zhurong and Chinese scientists on Earth.
Far from being just a data relay point, the orbiter is also equipped with several measuring instruments including a spectrometer, medium and high-resolution cameras, surface radar and particle analysers.
The orbiter was designed to spend roughly one Martian year or 687 earth days.
Zhurong joins two other rovers on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance. In 2028 China plans to return to the Red Planet, this time in a sample return mission, according to Space.com.