A March 5 long rocket carrying an orbiter, lander, and rover as part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars will launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province on July 23, 2020. Noel Celis / Getty Images
NASA’s Perseverance rover will soon have a new companion on the red planet, as China will send its first Mars rover to the surface of the planet as early as next month. The Tianwen-1 mission started last July and arrived on Mars in February of this year. The spaceship has already shared an image of Mars that was captured as it approached its destination. The real challenge of the mission, however, lies ahead of the plan to land a rover on the planet in May or June.
China’s space agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), recently announced the name for the small machine that will become China’s first Mars rover. It is called Zhurong, after a fire god from traditional Chinese legends.
The name was announced at the China Space Conference 2021 in Nanjing. The name was chosen to complement the Chinese name for Mars, Huoxing, which means planet of fire.
“Naming China’s first Mars rover after the god of fire means igniting the flame of China’s planetary exploration,” said Wu Yanhua, deputy director of CNSA, as reported by the Chinese state media agency Xinhua. He also described how the name Zhurong is made up of the terms “Zhu” (desire) and “Rong” (cooperation) in the spirit of peaceful space exploration.
Landing a rover on Mars is extremely difficult not only because of the thin atmosphere and alternating wind and dust storms, but also because of the communication delay between the planet and Earth. This means that rovers must land autonomously without being guided in real time.
CNSA estimates that Zhurong’s landing process will take seven to eight minutes, with the vehicle using a parachute and retro socket to slow its descent through the atmosphere and aim for a soft landing on the surface. The landing area in the southern region of Utopia Planitia, the largest impact basin on Mars, was explored by the NASA Viking 2 lander in the 1970s.
The Tianwen-1 mission aims to survey this area to learn more about the surface and subsurface of the region, including its composition and the presence of water ice.