Credit: Weibo wlr2678


China is ready to take the Mars plunge. The country’s Tianwen-1 orbiter is set to dispatch the Zhurong rover for a fiery entry, descent and landing on the Red Planet – a deployment window that opens May 15 and stretches to May 19, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The targeted touchdown area is a large plain on Mars known as Utopia Planitia.

Plowing through the thin Martian atmosphere, the lander will enter a hovering stage several hundred feet above the surface as onboard sensors, including a camera system, search for a safe touchdown zone.

Credit: China Aerospace Technology Corporation

Ancient fire god

Once down on Mars, the landing craft is to send out the nearly 530 pound (240 kilograms) Zhurong rover. It is named after an ancient fire god of Chinese mythology, built to wheel across the planet for at least 3 Martian months, roughly 92 days on Earth.

The Tianwen-1 mission is China’s first attempt at soft landing on Mars, aimed at achieving “orbiting, landing and roving” all in one mission. If successful, China’s lander/rover would join currently operating NASA Mars machinery, the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers.

Credit: CCTV/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

Landing site

Tianwen-1 was launched on July 23, 2020 and entered Mars orbit on February 10, 2021. The landing window at Utopia Planitia opens from early morning May 15 until May 19, Beijing time.

The Tianwen-1 landing site region, in Utopia Planitia, is in an “extremely interesting area” and complements previous exploration of the margins of the northern lowlands at the NASA Viking-1 and NASA Pathfinder sites, explains James Head, of the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

“It lies within the area thought to be part of potential ancient northern lowland oceans that may have existed in the Noachian and Late Hesperian, and lies topographically below the proposed ‘shorelines’ for both of these candidate oceans,” Head told Inside Outer Space.

This rocky panoramic scene is the second picture of the Martian surface that was taken by Viking Lander 2 shortly after touchdown on Sept. 3, 1976.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Astrobiological interest

The global-scale unit within which Tianwen-1 is targeted is the Vastitas Borealis Formation, Head added, a Late Hesperian-aged unit that is interpreted to be the sedimentary remnant of the ocean proposed to occupy the northern lowlands at that time.

“Thus it not only has extremely high geological interest — do the surface units look sedimentary, is there evidence of wave and water activity, is there any remaining water frozen as ice, etc. — but is also of very obvious astrobiological interest given possible fossils or evidence of biological activity,” Head explained.

China’s Mars rover. Credit: Zou Yongliao, et al.

In September 1976, NASA’s Viking-2 landed in the Utopia basin, in the northern part of the basin, near Mie Crater. At that location, Head noted that the U.S. Mars stationary lander found a wide diversity of features and rocks, including ice contraction crack polygons, frosts and drifts of snow. 

“These results bode very well for the high scientific interest of the potential types of terrains that the Tianwen-1 mission will explore,” Head said. Most importantly, China will be able to go “over the horizon,” a very frustrating limitation of the stationary Viking-2 mission, he said.

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