NASA has had a string of recent successes with Mars missions, but don’t let that fool you – half of all Mars missions end in failure. The Soviet Union once landed a spacecraft on Mars in 1971, but communication was lost just 110 seconds later. As recently as 2017, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander crashed on its way to the Martian surface. China’s first attempt on Mars was actually part of the 2011 Russian Fobos-Grunt mission to explore Mars and its moon Phobos. This spacecraft failed to leave Earth orbit and ended up re-entering Earth’s atmosphere months later, leading China to continue its own independent mission to Mars.
Don’t expect Zhurong to live up to, say, persistence. The latter weighs over a metric ton, is nuclear powered, has 23 cameras, performs a carbon dioxide to oxygen technology demonstration, can collect and store samples that will someday be returned to Earth, and even brought a new helicopter to the planet. The former weighs just 240 kilograms, runs on solar power, carries just six instruments, and is only expected to last 90 Martian days (although it may very well survive longer).
The goal of Tianwen-1 is to use its 13 instruments (seven on the orbiter, six on the rover) to study the geology and mineralogy of the soil of Mars, map its water ice distribution, probe electromagnetic forces and gravitational of the planet, and characterize its surface climate and environment. While the orbiter will observe and measure these things from a global perspective and capture images up to a resolution of 2 meters, Zhurong will focus on the intrigue points on the surface. It will use spectroscopy to find out what the ground is made of, measure magnetic fields on the ground, and track changes in weather such as temperature and winds.
Perhaps most intriguing is that Zhurong has a ground-penetrating radar that will allow him to observe underground activity and structures 100 meters deep, 10 times farther away than Perseverance’s radar. The hope is that this instrument will be able to detect potential reserves of groundwater ice. Water resources could be an essential part of establishing a colony on Mars one day. Utopia Planitia in particular is “a relatively safe place to land and a possible place to find water,” Wang said.