Chinese rover drives onto surface of Mars

A rear camera on China’s Zhurong rover looks back at its landing platform after driving onto the Martian surface May 21. Credit: CNSA

The Chinese solar-powered Zhurong rover has driven onto the surface of Mars, making China the second nation to operate a mobile robot on another planet.

The China National Space Administration said the Zhurong rover’s wheels reached the surface of Mars at 10:40 p.m. EDT Friday, May 21 (0240 GMT on May 22). The six-wheel rover rode to the Red Planet on a landing platform that successfully landed May 14, a few hours after detachment from China’s Tianwen 1 spacecraft in orbit around Mars.

Designed for a mission lasting at least three months, the Zhurong rover carries several scientific instruments to explore the mission’s landing site at Utopia Planitia, a broad plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars.

Images from the Zhurong rover show the craft surrounded by flat terrain with few large rocks.

NASA has landed five rovers on Mars since 1997, plus five stationary landers. Most recently, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February on a mission to collect rock samples for eventual return to Earth. Perseverance also delivered NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter to the Red Planet, setting the stage for a series of historic test flights in the Martian atmosphere beginning last month.

China’s Zhurong rover weighed about 529 pounds (240 kilograms) in Earth’s gravity, and stands about 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall. The Chinese craft is slightly larger than NASA’s defunct Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004. Zhurong is significantly smaller than NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers currently driving across the surface of Mars.

In addition to three-dimensional cameras and a subsurface radar to search for underground water ice, the Zhurong rover carries sensors to measure the composition of Martian rocks, a magnetic field monitor, and a weather station to collect atmospheric data at the Utopia Planitia location.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said the Zhurong rover can travel at a maximum speed of about 660 feet (200 meters) per hour, equivalent to 0.12 mph. In reality, the rover will likely travel much shorter distances each day.

Zhurong can climb slopes up to 20 degrees, and overcome obstacles as tall as 1 foot (30 centimeters), Xinhua said.

The rover’s active suspension system allows the craft to inchworm across the surface of Mars and walk sideways like a crab, Xinhua said. All six wheels can turn in any direction, a capability that could help the rover free itself from sand traps.

Chinese engineers designed the solar panels on the Zhurong rover to make it difficult for dust to accumulate on the power-generating array, according to Xinhua. The craft also has heaters to help it survive cold Martian nights.

Tianwen 1 became the first Chinese mission to enter orbit around Mars when it arrived in February, making China the sixth country or space agency to have a probe orbiting the Red Planet, following the United States, the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, India, and the United Arab Emirates.

The robotic mission departed Earth last July on a Long March 5 rocket, the most powerful launcher in China’s fleet.

The Tianwen 1 orbiter is designed to function at last one Martian, or about two Earth years. The orbiter has its own scientific instruments and will relay signals between the Zhurong rover and mission controllers in China.

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