China’s Zhurong Rover Begins Roaming Mars

HONG KONG—China’s Zhurong rover set its wheels on the surface of Mars early Saturday, beginning a tour of the red planet that is expected to last 90 days.

The rover roamed on Martian soil at approximately 10:40 a.m. Beijing time, according to the China National Space Administration, which released images of Zhurong leaving its landing platform. Six feet tall and weighing about 530 pounds, Zhurong joins the U.S. rover Perseverance on Mars.

China’s space program reached a historic milestone a week ago when it landed the rover on Mars from its Tianwen-1 mission on its first try. Zhurong, equipped with scientific instruments such as terrain cameras and particle analyzers, will investigate the planet’s soil, minerals and atmosphere while looking for signs of subsurface water ice.

A six-wheeled solar-powered rover, Zhurong is smaller and less technologically advanced that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s nuclear-powered Perseverance, which landed on Mars in February.

China is the second country to successfully operate a rover on Mars after the U.S., which first did so in 1997.

China’s space agency took four days to release images from Mars after its Zhurong rover landed. Here’s why the wait was longer than for NASA’s Perseverance rover, whose first photo was released the day it touched down. Photo: CNSA

Zhurong, which is named after the god of fire in ancient Chinese mythology, descended last Saturday in a landing capsule from the Tianwen-1 orbiter that had been circling Mars since February onto the target landing site: the southern part of Mars’s Utopia Planitia, a large plain.

After its landing on the morning of May 15, Zhurong had been conducting self-checks and environmental sensing, according to Yan Geng, an official at the Chinese space agency’s deep-space exploration department. Zhurong is expected to spend 90 Martian days—known as sols—on the red planet, and will send back images via the Tianwen-1 orbiter to Earth. Sols are about 39 minutes longer than days on Earth.

On Tuesday, the China Lunar Exploration Program, which released the first images from Zhurong, said on its official social media accounts that communication between the rover and the orbiter had been established for the first time the day before.

China’s space program has undertaken increasingly ambitious missions in recent years. Last month, it sent the first section of a planned space station into orbit, with hopes to have the station, seen as a rival to the International Space Station, operational by next year. It is also planning to form a permanent lunar base in coming years, inviting other nations to take part.

The Zhurong rover driving down the ramp of the lander onto the surface of Mars, in a screengrab taken from a video released by the China National Space Administration.


Photo:

cnsa/Reuters

Chinese engineers developed new materials for Zhurong so that it could shake off dust by vibrations, Chinese state media had reported, to help it survive the sand storms—the speed of which could reach nearly 600 feet per second—on the planet.

To date, the only space agency that has successfully landed and operated on Mars is NASA, which landed Viking 1 on the planet in 1976. NASA has successfully operated five rovers on Mars, including its first, Sojourner, in 1997.

While China has been shut out of NASA-related initiatives since 2011 by U.S. law, the American space agency’s administrator Sen. Bill Nelson on Wednesday congratulated the Chinese space agency’s release of the first photos from the Zhurong Mars rover.

“As the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the United States and the world look forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet,” Mr. Nelson said.

Technical personnel monitored the Zhurong rover from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center on Saturday.


Photo:

Jin Liwang / Zuma Press

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