China’s first Mars rover is about to land. The rover, named Zhurong, has been orbiting Mars aboard the Tianwen-1 spacecraft since February. It is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars on 14 May around 23:11 UTC.
Tianwen-1 is China’s second interplanetary mission, but the first the country has attempted solo. The other, called Phobos-Grunt, was a collaboration with Russia that didn’t make it out of Earth’s orbit due to a rocket failure after it launched in 2011. If Zhurong lands successfully, it will make China the third country to land a rover on Mars, after the US and the Soviet Union, whose 1971 rover mission lost contact with Earth after less than 2 minutes on the surface.
Over the past few months, Tianwen-1 has been taking pictures of Zhurong’s landing site in Utopia Planitia to make sure conditions there are safe. This is the same enormous impact basin where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.
The rover itself sits inside a lander that will protect it as it falls towards Mars’s surface, slowing down with the help of a heat shield, parachutes and a set of small thrusters. Then the lander will extend a ramp and Zhurong will roll out.
Zhurong is about 1.8 metres tall and weighs 240 kilograms, slightly larger than NASA’s now-defunct Spirit and Opportunity rovers but much smaller than Curiosity and Perseverance, which landed earlier this year. It is powered by solar panels, which are expected to keep it moving for 90 Martian days.
The rover is designed to study Mars’s geological structure, the composition of its surface and underlying layers of rock and ice, its magnetic field and its climate. To accomplish this, Zhurong is equipped with cameras, ground-penetrating radar, a magnetic field detector, a weather station and an instrument to measure the chemical composition of the dust and rocks. The Tianwen-1 orbiter has its own set of instruments to study Mars from orbit, in addition to relaying data from the rover back to Earth.
Tianwen-1 and Zhurong are also meant as a technology demonstration, setting the stage for a planned mission in the 2030s to bring back samples from Mars.
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