China’s space program took a great leap forward Saturday morning when a rover the size of a small car landed on the planet Mars. It was China’s first successful landing on the red planet — a feat of engineering and luck, according to space experts.
About half of the Mars missions to attempt a landing have failed. The U.S. has had its share of failures but has stuck the landing for the last seven missions. Currently, the U.S. has its own rover on Mars — Perseverance. China thus becomes only the second nation to successfully touch down on the surface of Mars.
Zhurong, the name given to the rover, is the Chinese fire god.
The six-wheeled rover, which is about the size of NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, carries six scientific instruments on board, including two panoramic cameras, a ground-penetrating radar and a magnetic field detector. It also has a laser that it can use to zap rocks and study their composition, as well as a meteorological instrument to study the climate and weather on Mars.
Zhurong will work in tandem with the Tianwen-1 orbiter to study the Red Planet, and the orbiter will serve as a data relay station for communications between Zhurong and mission controllers on Earth. The orbiter is designed to last for at least one Mars year, or about 687 Earth days.
China recently completed a successful sample return mission from the moon. And the Chinese have recently launched the first module in what is to be their own version of a space station. Clearly, China is working toward challenging NASA’s longtime dominance in space.
The Chinese Communists don’t have to worry about taxpayers complaining that the space program is a waste of money. They recognize the enormous PR value in overtaking America in space and are spending the money to make it happen.
The launch of the main module for China’s space station in April is the first of 11 planned missions to build and provision the station and send up a three-person crew by the end of next year. While the module was successfully launched, the uncontrolled return to Earth of the rocket drew international criticism including from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
China has said it wants to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there. No timeline has been released for these projects. A space plane is also reportedly under development.
The U.S. landed on the moon 50 years ago and it will be at least 5 years until NASA is able to go back. China will almost certainly beat that date. While in many respects, the U.S. space program is still ahead of China, building a space station, landing people on the moon, and flying a reusable shuttle-like spaceplane would all show that China is on track to surpass the U.S. in space achievement in the near future.