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another giant leap for China

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The “Zhurong” lander and rover of the Tianwen-1 mission, China’s first interplanetary expedition, landed on Mars a few days ago. About the size of a golf cart, the vehicle will collect data on Martian groundwater. It will also be a question of mapping the geological structure of the planet.

China, a major player in the space industry

It’s done: on May 15, around 4 a.m. (Beijing time), the Chinese probe Tianwen-1 dropped its lander and rover – named Zhurong -, completing the most perilous stage of its mission of ten months. A few hours later, the two craft began to slice through the atmosphere of Mars, nestled inside their capsule, at more than four kilometers per second.

The attempted landing then involved the deployment of a parachute, the firing of retro rockets, and the inflation of huge air bags. The lander finally landed safely in a vast rocky plain called Utopia Planitia. Only two countries had already achieved this technical feat: Russia and the United States.

This new successful mission once again marks the incredible progress of the Chinese space program recorded in recent years. Recall that China, which sent its first taikonaut into space in 2003, distinguished itself last year by bringing the first lunar samples to Earth for forty years. A year earlier, China had also successfully landed on the far side of the moon.

Finally, it should be noted that the country is currently building a space station which will succeed the ISS in the coming years.

The landing zone of the Chinese mission (striped) compared to the landing points of previous missions. Credits: Nature

What to expect

In a few days, the 1.85-meter-long six-wheeled rover with a mass of around 240 kg will be released to the surface by its lander. Its nominal lifespan is 90 Sols (92.5 Earth days). However, it could survive for years, as did NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Recall also that Yutu-2, the rover of China evolving on the other side of the Moon, had a lifespan of similar design. However, the vehicle is still active after more than two years.

Utopia Planitia, where Zhurong is located, is a large, relatively flat expanse formed by the impact of an object billions of years ago. The basin’s surface is mostly covered with volcanic material, which may have been altered by more recent processes, such as repeated freezing and thawing of the ice. Also researchers are particularly excited by the possible detection of permafrost below the surface.

To operate, Zhurong is equipped with several instruments. Two cameras will aim to take images of nearby rocks, while a multispectral camera and a spectrometer equipped with laser technology will allow their constitution to be studied.

Just like Perseverance, Zhurong also offers ground penetrating radar. This instrument will reveal the geological processes that led to the formation of the regions through which it travels.

Meanwhile, the mission’s orbiter will take care of transferring data from Zhurong to China. However, the craft will also make its own scientific contributions. In particular, it will be a question of analyzing the border between the upper Martian atmosphere and the solar winds, again to better understand the functioning of the magnetic field of Mars.


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