Today, after surviving the fiery hypersonic descent similar to the infamous “7 minutes of terror”, China has successfully landed its Zhurong rover (named after a fire god in Chinese mythology) on the surface of the Red Planet. Like NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity before, its landing platform utilized small downward-facing rockets to slow down during the last few seconds. Its mission for the next three months will include studying the planet’s composition and looking for signs of underground ice.
Capable of moving a respectable 200 meters per hour, Zhurong will operate in the Utopia Planitia region in the planet’s northern hemisphere, believed to contain vast amounts of underground water ice. The scientific instruments on board include 2 panoramic cameras, a magnetic field detector, ground-penetrating radar, a meteorological instrument, and a laser capable of vaporizing rocks to study their composition.
Tianwen-1 mission (which translates as “Heavenly Questions”) has departed Earth in July 2020 onboard the Long March 5 rocket. After putting the 529-pound (140kg) six-wheeled rover onto the surface, the orbiter will work in tandem with its companion to relay communications to the scientists back on Earth. It will stay in orbit for over 680 days and continue photographing the Martian surface.
The recent pace of China’s space program has been truly astonishing: it conducted its first human space flight in 2003, more than 40 years later than USSR and the US. Since then it has launched 3 orbital stations (in 2011, 2016, and 2021), became the third country to land on the moon in 2013, and the first to land on its far side in 2019.
Now China has entered an even more exclusive club, becoming the third nation to land and only the second nation to successfully operate a spacecraft on the Martian surface. The US has landed and operated 5 missions on the Red Planet over the years: Viking-1 and Viking-2 in 1976, Sojourner in 1997, Curiosity in 2012, and Perseverance in February 2021. Aside from that, USSR’s Mars-3 mission was the first one to land on Mars but failed before the rover could be deployed after only around 100 seconds. Every other mission sent by the US, USSR, UK, EU, and Russia has failed to get to the Red Planet safely. Here’s to the hope though: next year EU, Russia, and Japan will all try to turn the tide and overcome the Mars Curse, safely landing on the surface of our cosmic neighbor.