Chinese rover Zhurong lands on Mars: The meaning of China’s red plant success

May 23, 2021 1:42 PM

On May 22, 2021 it was announced by China that their Mars rover Zhurong has successfully undertaken a test drive on the surface of Mars.

China's Zhurong rover is depicted on the surface of Mars in this artist's rendering made available by the China National Space Administration on Saturday (AP Image)

By Dr Ajey Lele

How good is China in the field of biotechnology, mainly in the area of vaccine development? Possibility, not that good. In fact, their own disease control official had admitted sometime back that effectiveness of their Covid-19 vaccine is low. Few months back Brazil found the overall effectiveness rate of their Covid-19 vaccine, Sinovac, as low as 50.4 percent. But, there is another arena of technology, where China’s track record has been exemplary and that is rocket science. In the recent past, China has earned a very good name for their achievements in the domain of space. It is important to realise that just a few decades back all Chinese achievements in the domain of space were viewed with suspicion. It was generally argued that China’s success has been owing to the assistance given to them by Russia or because China was involving itself in reverse engineering of Russian technology. But, not anymore. Today, China has emerged as one of the most important players in the domain of space globally.

On May 22, 2021 it was announced by China that their Mars rover Zhurong has successfully undertaken a test drive on the surface of Mars. With this success, China has become the only second country to drive a rover on the surface of Mars. The in past, the US has successfully managed nine Mars landings, including five rovers operating on the Martian surface. During 1971, the Soviet’s had managed a Mars landing, but it lost communication seconds later.

China’s Tianwen-1 (this is the name of the orbiter inside which the rover was placed) has been one the major missions ever planned by any other country for studying Mars except the US. This mission could be viewed as a four phased mission. The first phase involved launching of a five-ton Mars probe called Tianwen-1 on July 23, 2020. This probe travelled for around seven months to reach Mars. The second phase involved a successful entry of this probe into the Martian orbit on Feb 10, 2021. The third phase was about the successful landing of the Zhurong rover on Mars on May 14, 2021. Actually, this process involved the landing of a lander inside which the rover was placed. The fourth phase was about the Mars rover Zhurong getting out of the lander and starting operating on the surface of Mars. Zhurong is 240 kg six-wheel solar-powered rover.

The third and fourth phase operations of China’s Mars mission were very critical. It involved a safe landing of the lander on the Martian surface and subsequently after a few days rolling out of a ramp from the lander’s belly and ensuring a safe parting for the Zhurong rover from this ramp to arrive on the surface of Mars. The uniqueness of this rover is that it can also walk sideways like a crab. Also, the wheels can turn in any direction, which could help the rover in dodging obstacles and climbing slopes. The designed life for the orbiter is one year, while the rover is expected to operate for 3 months. The scientific aim of this mission is to study the Martian topography and geology and various sensors on board the rover would help analyse the chemistry of soil and rocks. Idea is to gather information for future unmanned and possibly for manned missions by understanding more about the composition of the surface material, climate and environment of Mars. China has major plans to study Mars. They are planning to send the second mission to Mars during 2028. They are expected to focus on bringing soil and rock samples back from that planet to earth.

China’s Lunar Exploration Programme is also found to be happening almost as planned. Since 2007 onwards, China has already completed five successful missions to the Moon. They have landed the rover and lander on different locations on the Moon during their third and fourth missions called robotic equipment landing missions (2013, 2019). They could be said to have mastered the art of operating a rover on the surface of the planet (Moon) during Chang’e 3 & 4 missions. Albeit, the challenges for operating a rover on the Martian surface are much higher than the Moon’s surface. During December 2020, the Chang’e 5 mission has managed to return to earth with 2 kg of lunar soil.

There is much to learn for India from China’s example. India launched its first Moon mission during 2008. It managed to launch its second mission to the Moon only by July 2019, which was a partial success. It is planning its third Moon mission during 2021. However, owing to Covid-19 crisis it looks unlikely that this mission would happen in the near future. Also, there is no clarity about India’s Mars programme. After the successful mission during 2014, India should have planned the next mission during the next two to four years’ time. But that has not happened. Next window for visiting Mars would be available during 2022. It is not known if India could be using this window for the second mission to Mars. Let us hope that India would not remain a ‘one mission wonder’ as far as conquering the red planet is concerned.

(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. He can be reached at: ajey.lele@gmail.com)

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