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China’s Martian rover Zhurong could begin exploring the Mars surface this weekend

The Chinese Tianwen-1 Mars mission launched last summer and successfully landed the Zhurong rover on Mars a few days ago

A life size model of the Chinese Mars rover Zhurong, named after the Chinese god of fire, at the National Museum in Beijing.
Visitors to an exhibition on China’s space program look at a life size model of the Chinese Mars rover Zhurong, named after the Chinese god of fire, at the National Museum in Beijing on Thursday, May 6, 2021.
Associated Press

China’s first Martian rover is set to begin exploring the surface of the red planet this weekend.

The six-wheeled, 350-pound Chinese rover named Zhurong — part of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission — landed on Mars on May 14 with the help of a landing platform, reported Space. Zhurong is conducting system checks this week, and, “if that schedule holds, the rover should roll down the lander’s twin ramps and touch Mars’ red dirt for the first time on Friday or Saturday,” according to Space,

“China has left a footprint on Mars for the first time, an important step for our country’s space exploration,” said China’s official Xinhua News Agency on social media, The Associated Press reported.

China launched its Tianwen-1 mission on July 23, 2020, reported Reuters. Zhurong joins NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on the Martian surface and has made its Martian home about 1,100 miles northeast of the American mission, according to Nature.

  • July was picked for China’s launch because of the close proximity of the two sun-orbiting planets, the South China Morning Post reported.
  • “Tianwen, which translates as ‘heavenly questions,’ is named after the masterpiece of one of China’s greatest poets, Qu Yuan,” according to the Morning Post.

What is the goal of China’s Mars mission?

The goal of the Tianwen-1 mission, which is expected to last about three months, is to study Mars’ surface, look for signs that the planet was once home to water and to take subsurface images — and then successfully relay that data back to Earth, according to Nature.

  • The mission will use 13 total sensors — seven on its orbiter and six on Zhurong — to study the planet, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review.
  • “Perhaps most intriguing is that Zhurong has a ground-penetrating radar that will let it peer into activity and structures underground 100 meters deep — 10 times further than Perseverance’s radar. The hope is that this instrument will be able to detect potential reserves of water ice underground,” MITechnology Review said of the Chinese rover.
  • “Of great interest to scientists is a pitted, cone-shaped feature seen in aerial images, which is about three kilometers northwest of Zhurong’s position: this could be a volcano formed from lava or slurries of mud,” Nature reported. Similar volcanoes on Earth can produce bacteria and methane, according to Nature.
  • During it’s roughly 90-day mission, Zhurong may also explore impact craters and sand dunes found on Mars’ surface, reported Nature.

Are the Chinese and American space programs working together?

According to MIT’s Technology Review, both countries’ Martian missions could create an opportunity for America and China — two of Earth’s most powerful and adversarial countries — to collaborate in future scientific research.

  • “NASA is currently barred from working with the Chinese space program, but the release of peer-reviewed research through the public press means there’s an opportunity to compare results from similar investigations conducted by each country’s rovers, such as subsurface radar data,” reported MIT.
  • But, the two countries did coordinate their trajectories of their 2020 Mars-bound launches, according to MIT.