China’s first attempt to land a rover on Mars has been successful, according to Chinese state media. The 240 kilogram rover Zhurong landed on Saturday shortly after 1 a.m. CEST in the south of the Mars area Utopia Planitia. For the People’s Republic this success is a milestone and a sheet of glory: While NASA took decades to make it from Mars orbit to the Martian soil, the Chinese space program succeeded on the first visit to Mars.
The six-wheeled Zhurong was first slowed down by a parachute before the drag rockets intercepted the last momentum. Due to the long signal propagation time between Mars and Earth, this had to be done automatically.
The Tianwen-1 mission, launched in July 2020, now includes the first probe, the first landing vehicle and China’s first rover on Mars. Tianwen-1 had already reached Mars in February. After entering a park orbit, there wasn’t much to be heard from the notoriously secretive people in charge of the Chinese space program, apart from the naming of the Mars rover in the name of an ancient god of fire. The landing was announced hours in advance for “the next few days”.
Tour designed for three months
China’s ground vehicle, the size of a golf course vehicle, is expected to leave in a few days and then explore the surface for about three months. It is important to investigate evidence of (frozen) water under and on the surface. The planet’s magnetic field is also to be measured. While NASA’s Perseverance is powered by nuclear power, Zhurong has to hope for good sunlight in order to be able to charge his batteries with his solar cells.
A weather station will take measurements of the surface climate. The satellite will meanwhile take atmospheric measurements and map Mars. A total of nine satellites are currently orbiting Mars: four US, two European and one each from India, Arabia and China.
Of 19 attempts to land on Mars, only eleven were successful – nine by NASA alone and now one by China’s space agency. The Soviet Union also landed successfully in 1971. However, the radio contact was broken off 110 seconds after touchdown. The cause could never be clarified. Landing vehicles from the European Space Agency (ESA) failed to make it in 2003 and 2011. China is now even planning to collect Martian samples and bring them back to Earth towards the end of this decade. A Chinese space station in Earth orbit is already under construction.