China successfully lands Zhurong rover on Mars
The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) successfully landed and deployed the rover component of its Mars Tianwen-1 mission. The lander and rover landed safely on Mars in the early hours of May 15, China time, according to Chinese state media. The rover, named Zhurong, went live in the following days, and its first images were released by the CNSA on May 19.
The landing makes China the third country to soft-land on the Red Planet, after the Soviet Union and the United States, and the second after the United States to land and deploy a rover on the Martian surface . CNSA also took a new step in planetary exploration – having a successful orbiter, lander and rover as part of the agency’s first mission to Mars, a huge scientific and technical achievement.
Tianwen-1 also deployed a small camera on its cruise to Mars to take a self-portrait of the spacecraft en route to its final destination, another first. The ejected camera took several photographs of its parent ship and transmitted them to Tianwen-1 by radio, which were then sent back to Earth by the spacecraft.
Zhurong is somewhat larger than the extraordinarily successful Spirit and Opportunity missions launched by NASA in 2003 and is similar in design. It has six articulated wheels to overcome small obstacles on the Martian surface, is powered by solar panels, and communicates to Earth using Tianwen-1 as a relay (with the European Mars Express as a backup). The rover is slated for 90 sols (Martian days) of operations, and it is hoped that its longevity and heritage will match or exceed that of its US-built predecessors.
The Tianwen-1 mission (“heavenly questions”) was launched last July on a Long March 5 heavy launcher, whose thrust / weight ratio is comparable to that of the Soviet Proton-M, the European Ariane 5 and the Delta American IV. . The mission’s ongoing accomplishments bring honor to the hundreds of operators in China, as well as those providing assistance from Argentina, Austria, France and the European Space Agency.
The probes were launched during the same launch window used by the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft and NASA’s Perseverance rover, a space flight path that takes advantage of the orbits of Earth and Mars to minimize the fuel needed to reach the fourth planet from the Sun. The three missions arrived on Mars last February a few weeks apart.
Instead of immediately deploying the rover, however, the Tianwen-1 controllers opted to use the orbiter to more carefully map potential landing sites for Zhurong. The landing itself lasted nine minutes and, as is characteristic of missions to Mars, due to the great distance between Earth and Mars, it had to be fully automated. Comments from CNSA officials indicate the rover is performing as expected.
The scientific objectives of the rover and the orbiter are vast and ambitious. Like all missions to Mars, the overall goals are a deeper understanding of the geological history of Mars and ongoing research for signs of extraterrestrial life. In particular, Tianwen-1 and Zhurong will use 13 combination cameras and other scientific instruments to study the chemical composition of Martian soil and atmosphere, obtain detailed topological features of dried up river beds, volcano landforms, glaciers. and areas where wind erosion is significant. , analyze the planet’s climate and magnetic field, and use the two vehicles’ ground-penetrating radar to map groundwater ice.
The landing site is in the southern part of Utopia Planitia, a massive basin in the northern hemisphere of Mars that would once have been underwater billions of years ago. Indeed, data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed in 2016 that there was a lot of ice below the surface – about as much water as that contained in Lake Superior. One of Zhurong and Tianwen-1’s objectives will be to map this ice more precisely.
There are many other intriguing geological features in the area, including cone-shaped features that were likely formed from volcanic lava, or even mud. On Earth, the so-called mud volcanoes are associated with the production of methane by bacteria. While it is much more unlikely on Mars, scientists from China and the United States have expressed great enthusiasm for Zhurong’s in-depth study of these cones, which have so far only been imaged in orbit.
Of course, these scientific and technological achievements of China entail a heavy geopolitical baggage. After the publication of the first photos of Zhurong, NASA Administrator (and former US Senator from Florida) Bill Nelson offered: “Congratulations to the China National Space Administration for receiving the first images of the Zhurong Mars rover!” The statement continued, “I look forward to future international discoveries, which will help inform and develop the capabilities necessary to lay human boots on Mars.”
His tone was much more confrontational towards China, however, when testifying before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee, which took place as NASA released its official statement. “[China] is a very aggressive competitor, ”he proclaimed. “They’re going to land humans on the moon. This should tell us something about our need to shed our efforts and vigorously launch our Human Landing System program.
Underlying these comments are fears that China’s rocket technology could eclipse that of the United States, which is seen by the Biden administration as a deadly threat to its continued military build-up against China in the Indo-Pacific region. This “pivot to Asia” began under the Obama administration and continued under Trump as an attempt by US capitalism to force China to comply with the “rules-based international order,” the economic framework. and post-WWII-dominated US security. imperialism.
In addition, the Space Force created by then-US President Donald Trump is aimed directly at securing US military dominance in all areas, especially in outer space. The United States has also announced plans for a moon-orbiting space station, which would inherently militarize not only the orbits around the Earth and the Moon, but the space paths between them as well.
While there is no concrete evidence that China is using its space program to develop new military hardware, the launchers, guidance systems, and communications networks needed to land on Mars have obvious potential military fallout. And these technologies are under development. China has announced many more missions to Mars in the near future, as well as more to the Moon, including lunar missions that could be crewed.
The country has also launched the first module of its own space station, the Tiangong, which will be roughly the size of the Soviet / Russian Mir space station. It has made it isolated from virtually every space program in other countries, especially the United States-led International Space Station. Under the 2011 legislation, NASA is prohibited from any exchange of technology or knowledge with China. His godfather, Republican Frank Wolf, said: “We don’t want to give [China] the opportunity to leverage our technology, and we have nothing to gain from facing it. “
In a rational world, such comments would be ridiculed at best, if noticed, overshadowed by the celebrations of CNSA’s triumphs. The agency’s subsequent missions would not be hidden behind a shroud of secrecy thrown by the Chinese government and viewed with hostility by the U.S. government, but fully integrated into a globally coordinated space program to understand Mars and the solar system in its entirety. together.
However, such a vision of unified space travel will never manifest as long as the world is divided into rival capitalist nation-states.