On May 14, China became just the second country to successfully land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars when the Zhurong rover touched down in the Utopia Planitia region of the red planet. It rolled off its landing platform on May 21 to begin exploring Mars.
The Zhurong rover entered orbit around Mars on Feb. 10 as part of the Tianwen-1 spacecraft. While Zhurong explores the Martian surface, Tianwen-1 will remain in orbit, conducting science operations of its own. Tianwen-1 will also act as a communications relay for the rover.
Zhurong carries a suite of instruments for studying Mars’ climate and geology, but these instruments don’t have cool acronyms like NASA gear does. Similar to the instruments aboard NASA rovers Perseverance and Curiosity, Zhurong includes a laser and spectrometer to analyze the elemental composition of the Martian surface.
There is a climate station to observe the atmosphere, a handful of cameras, and an instrument that will be used to study the Martian magnetic field. The rover will also use its ground penetrating radar to search for pockets of liquid water and water ice beneath the surface of Mars.
A similar radar system has been deployed to the moon on board the Chinese Yutu-2 rover since early 2019. That system has probed to a depth of 40 meters below the lunar surface.
The design of the rover borrows heavily from the Opportunity and Spirit rovers launched to Mars in 2003 by NASA. The rover is solar powered and has an expected operational life of 90 days, also like Spirit and Opportunity.
Time will tell if this new rover exceeds expectations to the degree that Spirit, which lasted six years, and Opportunity, which lasted 15 years, did.
Information and images are slow to trickle out from China regarding their ambitious space program. That’s a shame because they have conducted many missions of late.
Since November, the Chinese have sent a mission to the moon and returned a lunar sample to Earth, entered orbit around Mars, sent the first component of their new space station into Earth orbit, and landed a rover on the Martian surface.
The Morning Sky
Saturn and Jupiter are well up in the southeast before dawn. The moon pairs with Saturn on Monday and with Jupiter on Tuesday. Altair, Vega and Deneb, the three points of the summer triangle, are high in the South before dawn.
The Evening Sky
Venus and Mercury will be quite close to each other low in the Western sky at sunset this evening. Venus continues to climb higher in the evening sky while Mercury has already begun plunging toward the sun. Mars is low in the West as the sun sets, getting dimmer and smaller every day.
You’re running out of time to see M44, the Beehive Cluster, in the constellation Cancer. A pair of binoculars gives a great field of view, allowing you to count at least 75 stars in the eyepiece. The cluster contains more than 1,000 stars and is visible to the naked eye under dark skies.
Dan Price is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and informal educator. He leads the Night Sky Tours at Josephine Sculpture Park. Have a question about astronomy or space science? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and it might be featured in a future column.