Currently, China is planning to land the first rover on the surface of Mars. Authorities in Beijing have not given an exact date for the landing, but it could take place as early as Friday, May 14.
China’s National Space Administration has chosen to name its rover Zhurong, after the ancient Chinese mythological god of fire. CNSA announced the name last month, noting that it is a reference to the red planet’s Chinese name, Huoxing, which means “planet of fire.
The rover has been circling around Mars since February aboard China’s first all-Indigenous Mars mission, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft.
Tianwen-1 will now send a lander and a rover to the planet’s surface. If the mission is successful, China will become only the second country – after the United States – to operate a rover on Mars for an extended period of time.
“According to the current flight situation, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft will choose an opportunity to land on the Martian Utopia Plane from the early morning of May 15 to May 19, Beijing time,” it said.
Beijing’s time zone is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time, meaning the landing could occur May 14 for observers in the United States.
CNSA released a statement Friday morning on the landing plans for the Zhurong rover.
Prior to the space agency’s announcement, there was speculation on Twitter that a landing time of 23:11 UTC (19:11 EDT) had been given, according to a source citing Ye Peijian, an official with the China Academy of Space Technology.
Zhurong will join NASA’s two active rovers on Mars, Curiosity and Perseverance, if and when it successfully lands on the Martian surface.
The goals of the Zhurong rover include studying Mars’ magnetic field, determining the composition of the planet’s atmosphere and conducting weather studies. It is equipped with radar capable of detecting water beneath the planet’s surface – the first rover to conduct such a search from the ground, according to the nonprofit Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif.
Mars landings are notoriously challenging. According to a Nature article, engineers must pre-program the landing procedure in the spacecraft because the distance between Earth and Mars is too great for contact signals to travel back and forth fast enough to allow engineers to monitor the landing.
The United States is currently the only country that has successfully maintained a rover on Mars for an extended period of time. In 1971, the Soviet Union successfully landed a probe on Mars, but it crashed within seconds.