Update 15/05/2021: China landed the Zhurong Rover in Utopia Planitia on May 15 at 7:18 pm ET. China becomes the second country to successfully land a rover on Mars.
The Tianwen-1 mission, China’s first exploration of the Red Planet, is believed to be entering its next critical phase. Its lander and rover are expected to separate from the orbiter and experience the "seven minutes of terror" on the way to the surface of Mars.
Sources suggest that the atmospheric entry will happen on May 14 at 6:11 pm ET (11:11 pm UTC). The lander will come down through the atmosphere, covered by a heat shield. It will then deploy a parachute to slow down its descent. So far, this is similar to what NASA’s Perseverance did in its atmospheric entry.
But unlike the NASA rover – which had a skycrane to gently lower it to the ground – the lander will be doing all the work here. Retrorockets will eventually allow the system to soft-land in Utopia Planitia. If everything goes according to plan, it will then deploy a ramp from which the rover can descend onto the ground.
The rover is called Zhurong, after a mythological figure of Chinese folklore associated with fire. It is equipped with an interesting suite of instruments to investigate the Martian surface: Cameras, spectrometers, a weather station, and a magnetic field detector. The most intriguing device onboard is a ground-penetrating radar that will image about 100 meters (330 feet) below the surface of the Red Planet.
While Zhurong will be roaming, Tianwen-1 will continue its orbital observations of the planet. The orbiter can take detailed images of Mars, study its surface, subsurface, atmosphere, and magnetism from orbit. The observations from the pair will complement each other very well.
While this is China’s first interplanetary mission, the country has had its share of successes in recent years. It was the first to land a lander and a rover on the far side of the Moon with the Chang’e 4 mission. And its successor, Chang’e 5, landed and brought back 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks from the surface of the Moon just a few months ago.
If the landing is successful, China will become the third country to soft-land on Mars and the second one to deploy a rover. Zhurong is expected to work for 90 sols – one sol is a Martian day – corresponding to 92 days on Earth. This is a similar expectation that NASA had for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, both of which rolled about Mars for years after the end of their official mission. Hopefully, this can be the case for Zhurong too.