China’s Zhurong rover has commenced operations on the surface of Mars. The rover, which is slightly larger and heavier than NASA’s MER rovers Spirit and Curiosity, arrived on the surface of the planet on May 16th atop its lander vehicle (see: Space Sunday: China on Mars, JWST and a space tourist).
Since that time, the rover has been put through its first battery charging cycle after unfolding its solar panels, and then entered an initial telemetry-based check-out and commissioning phase that saw some of its core systems powered-up in readiness to commence operations, with similar checks being carried out on the lander.
This meant that it was not until May 19th that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) released the first images taken by the rover’s camera systems.
The first images to be released were those captured by Zhurong’s hazard avoidance cameras, which – and like their American counterparts – operate primarily in black and white. In particular, these images showed that the lander vehicle had successfully deployed the ramp Zhurong needed to descend onto the planet’s surface from the back of the lander.
The black-and-white images were followed by colour pictures captured by both the rover’s hazcam system and its high-resolution imaging system which is, again like US designs (and the upcoming EuroMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, mounted on a mast located on the rover’s forward section and capable of taken images of all of the rover’s surroundings.
China has been fairly close-lipped about the lander and rover – although the entire Tiawen-1 mission is seen as an “international” mission by Chinese authorities -, only releasing images via social media, etc., after the fact, with little or no fanfare beforehand. This meant it was Twitter snoops who first spotted the rover had actually deployed from this lander vehicle some time in the early hours of Saturday, May 22nd, UTC.
Andrew Jones was one of the first to spot CNSA images that showed the rover had rolled off the lander. However, CNSA quickly followed-up with more images captured by the rover, some of which were colour, and others were put together to form a “video” of the deployment process.
Now it is on the surface of Mars, Zhurong is expected to operate for a primary mission period of 90 sols (93 days) – which is likely to be extended if the rover completes that mission successfully. It will explore the area around its lander, using both it and the Tianwen-1 orbiter as communications relays, while carrying out research into the Martian weather and climate, and surface and sub-surface conditions.
The return of the first images from the rover sparked an appeal to the US Congress from NASA’s new Administrator, Bill Nelsen, who asked for a boost to the agency’s funding so that it might better manage deep space research and the planned return to the Moon in the face of the growing competition from China.
It has not all been smiles and roses for China, however. As I previously reported, the country can in for international criticism for failing to handle the uncontrolled return to Earth of the 23-tonne core stage of the long March 5B core stage used to lift the Tianhe primary module of the country’s new Tiangong space station. Following up from that mission, China had planned to launch its first mission to Tianhe on May 19th.
This was to be the Tianzhou-2 automated resupply vehicle. A fully automated, 13-tonne vehicle, Tianzhou-2 was supposed to make an automatic rendezvous and docking with Tinahe in advanced of the first crewed mission to the fledgling space station, which is due to occur in June, 2021; however, the launch was scrubbed as a result of “technical issues”. Initially re-scheduled for lift-off on Thursday, May 20th, the launch was again postponed, and has now been pushed back until Friday, May 29th.
When Tianzhou-2 does eventually lift-off atop its Long March 7 booster, it will be carrying 6.5 tonnes of equipment and supplies for the first crew to visit Tianhe, and consumables for the station itself, and will remain docked through the 3-month period of the Shenzhou-12 crewed mission. During the crew’s visit, Tianzhou-2 will perform a set of automated undocking, free flight and rendezvous / docking manoeuvres as rehearsals in readiness for when the station’s science modules are launched.
Tianzhou-2 will depart Tianhe ahead of the Shenzhua-12 crew. The station will then be visited by a further automated res-supply vehicle and the Shenzhou-13 crew, over late 2021 / early 2022, for the Chinese are calling the “Critical Technology Validation Phase” of the station’s commissioning, verifying it is ready for the launch of the two science modules. These will take place in 2022, paving the way for full operations to commence from 2023.