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China's Mars rover Zhurong completes primary mission, gets life extension

A panoramic camera image showing the terrain ahead of China's Zhurong Mars rover around Aug. 15, 2021
A panoramic camera image showing the terrain ahead of China's Zhurong Mars rover around Aug. 15, 2021 (Image credit: CNSA/PEC)

China's Zhurong rover has completed its primary three-month-long expedition on Mars but is set to continue exploring the Red Planet.

Zhurong completed its 90-sol mission in Mars' Utopia Planitia on Aug. 15, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA). (One sol, or Mars day, lasts about 24 hours and 40 minutes. So 90 sols is about 92 Earth days.)

Since landing on May 14, the rover has taken selfies with its landing platform and driven 2,917 feet (889 meters) across the surface, visiting its own discarded landing equipment and analyzing different rocks, dunes and other features as it went. 

Related: China's Tianwen 1 Mars mission in photos

A hazard avoidance camera shot showing fresh Zhurong tracks in the Martian surface.

A hazard avoidance camera shot showing fresh Zhurong tracks in the Martian surface. (Image credit: CNSA/PEC)

New images from the rover show the terrain that it most recently reached. Zhurong will continue to cross this area, which is thought to be below the shoreline of an ancient ocean in southern Utopia Planitia.

CNSA says Zhurong's six scientific instruments are working well and that the rover has, with the help of the Tianwen 1 orbiter acting as a relay, sent back 10 gigabytes of raw science data. That information could help scientists better understand Mars and its history, Liu Jianjun, chief designer of the Tianwen 1 ground application system, told CCTV.

"Hopefully, by providing these data to our scientists, we can get a deeper understanding of the geology of Mars, and then even see if we can find evidence of the existence of an ancient ocean in Utopia Planitia," Liu said.

The Tianwen 1 orbiter has been passing over Zhurong's position once a day to relay data back home. Both spacecraft will go into safe mode from mid-September through late October, however, because of a solar conjunction preventing communications between Earth and Mars. 

With Mars on the far side of the sun from Earth, our view of the Red Planet is obscured by the sun. Charged particles given off by the star interfere with radio communications between the planets, meaning Zhurong will need to operate autonomously, and in a limited capacity, for safety reasons. NASA's Curiosity and Perseverance rovers will also be operating on their own between Oct. 2 and Oct.14 for the same reason. 

Map charting the Chinese Mars rover Zhurong's travels from its landing platform toward the south.

Map charting the Chinese Mars rover Zhurong's travels from its landing platform toward the south.  (Image credit: CNSA)

When fully active again, Zhurong will continue toward a feature described as a "groove" just over 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) away.

"If it is possible for us to see from the top to the bottom [of the groove], or if there are disparities of rock types and compositions, we could learn about what has happened in its geological history. So, this is what we're going to focus on in the near future," Liu said.

TIanwen 1, meanwhile, will sometime after the conjunction switch its orbit to allow it to begin a global survey of Mars with its own seven science payloads. Teams are devising an orbit that will allow the orbiter to begin its own detections while still assisting Zhurong, which has only limited data transmission capabilities. 

Tianwen 1 launched in July 2020 and is China's first independent interplanetary mission. The spacecraft entered Mars orbit in February of this year, and Zhurong separated from the orbiter and made its successful landing in May.

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Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.