China's Mars rover completes its first 60 Martian days on an alien world

China's Mars rover's adventures are only beginning.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of Zhurong and its lander.China National Space Administration

Scientists from China presented the first detailed analysis of the Zhurong rover's findings on Mars, the country's first rover to reach the red planet.

In a press statement, the scientists explained that they found the first "notable evidence of relatively strong topography" as well as a "surface shaped by wind and potentially by water." Their findings suggest the landing site might be worth visiting by future missions.

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China's Mars Zhurong mission provides its first analysis

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature Geoscience, analyzed measurements taken by the Zhurong rover's instruments in the vicinity of its landing site. The rover landed on Utopia Planitia in the northern lowlands of Mars on May 15, 2021. On May 19, it beamed back its first images, giving the world a glimpse of its surrounding volcanic region, which may have once hosted a large body of water or ice.

The new analysis presents findings based on the rover's first 60 sols — Mars days — on the planet, during which it traveled 450 meters. The researchers looked at images taken by the rover, as well as the tracks left behind by Zhurong to analyze its surroundings. They discovered landforms consistent with wind erosions, including ridges, ripples, and eroded craters, as well as rock textures weathered by brines. 

China's Mars rover completes its first 60 Martian days on an alien world
Images of Mars taken by the Zhurong rover. Source: CNSA

"These initial findings demonstrate Zhurong's potential to provide insights into the evolution of the surface environment in the northern lowlands of Mars," the scientists said in their press release.

The Zhurong mission will continue to explore the red planet for a total of approximately 90 sols (or 92 Earth days). It will use equipment ranging from a magnetic field detector, cameras, spectrometers, a weather station, and more to study Mars' magnetic field, analyze its surface composition, and investigate its weather patterns.

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How many rover missions have made it to Mars?

To date, six rover missions have successfully landed on Mars. Aside from China's Zhurong, these are NASA's Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity rovers, as well as the still operational Curiosity and Perseverance rovers.

In October last year, NASA's Mars Perseverance team showed photographic evidence that their rover's landing location, the Jezero Crater, was once a large lake. This came in the form of pictures of river deltas and rocks that had once been carried over great distances by running water. In December, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced it had discovered that "significant amounts of water" are likely hiding inside the Red Planet's Valles Marineris.

Sadly, the launch of the ESA's own Mars rover, called ExoMars, was recently delayed once again. The rover, which was originally meant to launch in the summer of 2020 was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, the European agency announced they were once again delaying the launch as they would not collaborate with Russia amid the "deplorable" ongoing war in Ukraine.