China’s National Space Administration will today attempt to land its first Mars rover Zhurong on the Red Planet.
The robot is in orbit around Mars aboard the Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which has been mapping the dust world since February for landing zones. Now, according to multiple sources, the spacecraft will attempt to get its solar-powered trundlebot onto the surface at around 1113 UTC (1613 PT) – and as past attempts by humanity have shown, it’s a 50-50 shot at best.
Anything can go wrong during the so-called “seven minutes of terror,” the time it takes for a lander to rip through the Martian atmosphere and plop on the ground.
The vehicle’s speed has to slow from typically thousands of metres per second to zero in that time to prevent the hardware from slamming straight into the ground and smashing into smithereens. Parachutes have to be deployed at exactly the right time to manage the first stage of descent properly – remember what happened to the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli when it failed to handle flight on Mars?
Once the parachutes have slowed down the spacecraft, directable rocket thrusters will deploy to manage the last stage of the landing. The touchdown spot has been picked as Utopia Planitia, a region measuring 3,300 kilometres across created by an ancient impact event near the Martian North Pole. If it gets down safely, the craft will release its rover, which will open its solar cells and try to call home, via the orbiting spacecraft.
Named after the God of Fire in ancient Chinese mythology, Zhurong (祝融) runs on six wheels and has a mass of 240 kilograms. It carries seven instruments: a Terrain Camera, a Multispectral Camera, the Mars-Rover Subsurface Exploration Radar, a Mars Surface Composition Detector, a Mars Magnetic Field Detector, and the Mars Meteorology Monitor.
Unlike NASA’s Perseverance rover, Zhurong isn’t trying to find evidence of microbial life. Instead it’ll be scouting for signs of leftover liquid water. It also comes equipped with ion and particle analyzers to study the ionosphere and its effect on the planet’s climate.
Zhurong is powered by a set of solar panels that will unfurl; it’ll bask in the sunlight for a moment before it embarks on its main three-month mission to explore the Red Planet.
While NASA tends to live-stream such landings, it’s unlikely the Chinese will do the same. If the landing is successful we should hear about it pretty soon, though the longer we wait for news, the higher the probability that something didn’t quite work. ®