Things are changing on Mars, a world once dominated by robots from the United States. Now, Mars is home to an international cadre of robotic explorers with the arrival of China’s Zhurong rover. The mission touched down over the weekend, and Zhurong has just beamed back the first images from atop its landing platform. Soon, operators on Earth will set Zhurong loose on the red planet.
The Zhurong rover launched on July 23, 2020, just a few days before NASA’s Perseverance rover. That wasn’t a coincidence — both NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) timed their launches to reach Mars when it was closest to Earth. Perseverance landed back in February, which is also when the Tianwen-1 orbiter arrived. However, the CNSA didn’t land the rover until May 14th.
The newly received images show the six-wheeled rover still sitting on its landing platform. The images showed operators that all the lander’s systems worked correctly. The ramp is already extended, ready for the robot to descend to the surface. The robot’s solar panels and antenna were also confirmed to have deployed correctly.
China is only the second nation after the US to successfully land a robot on the Martian surface and keep it operating for an extended period. The European Union has attempted two rover landings, most recently in 2016, in the first phase of its ExoMars collaboration with Russia’s Roscosmos. Unfortunately, the Schiaparelli lander crashed into the surface instead of landing softly, but the Trace Gas Orbiter from the same mission is still alive and well. ExoMars will try again in 2023 with a new Roscosmos lander named Kazachok and the Rosalind Franklin rover.
Unlike Perseverance and Curiosity, Zhurong needs sunlight to power itself. NASA’s newer rovers have nuclear power sources that will run for years. The Chinese team hopes to get about 90 days of use out of the 529-pound (240 kilograms) rover, but it could always exceed expectations. Some of NASA’s earlier Mars rovers like Spirit and Opportunity had similar designs, and they both lasted years. In fact, it took a global dust storm to squelch out Opportunity in 2018, about 15 years after its mission began.
Zhurong is in a region of Mars called Utopia Planitia, a gigantic basin covering much of the planet’s northern hemisphere. Scientists speculate this expanse may once have held an ocean, and there could still be evidence of that all these billions of years later. In order to study this terrain, Zhurong has to get rolling. The CNSA will drive the rover down the ramp soon, and then it’s onward to science.