The Chinese rover Zhurong is on Mars. Let’s retrace the steps of this conquest. The Phobos-Grunt probe represents the first attempt at a Martian space mission by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA). The probe, developed in collaboration with Roscosmos, was launched in 2011, but the rocket that was supposed to send it to Mars failed to escape Earth‘s orbit.

In the second attempt, CNSA tried again with a more complex program based on an all-Chinese orbiter/lander/rover architecture. The mission, called Tiawen-1, was launched on July 23, 2020 aboard a Long March 5 carrier rocket from the Wenchang Space Center in southern Asia. Given the complexity of the operation, Zhurong did not land immediately upon reaching the orbit of the red planet (February 2021), but waited about two months before embarking on the minimal phase of the mission.

Zhurong on the Red Planet

Last night at 2:30 CET, with a short official statement (ref.), the Chinese authorities confirmed the landing of the Zhurong rover on Mars. Complex consisting of the rover and lander had separated from the mother probe a few hours earlier, and touched the surface of Mars at around 1:30 CET.

The EDL (Entry, Discent and Landing) maneuver was successful. In the first phase of the descent, the combined use of retro rockets and parachutes slowed the lander/rover complex. Near the surface, airbags were activated which gently placed the 240kg load.

Thus begins the Chinese exploration of Mars, which should last approximately 90 sols (Martian days). The estimated time of the mission could be extended if the vehicle is able to cope well with the extreme Martian conditions. The Zhurong rover will explore a small portion of Martian territory called the Utopia Planitia region, the same region where the Viking II lander landed in 1976. Equipped with numerous scientific instruments, the most important is a georadar that can probe the underground to a depth of 100 m. This instrument uses the same technology that is used on Earth to search for archaeological finds.

After the US, China becomes a member of the exclusive space exploration club. The second nation capable of landing a roving vehicle on the planet Mars. The precise point of Zhurong’s landing should coincide with the coordinates 109.7° East, 25.1° North.

Stefano Gallotta
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