China's Mars Zhurong rover probes underneath the potential site of an ancient ocean

The country's space agency aims to send humans to the red planet before NASA.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the Mars Zhurong rover alongside its lander.
An artist's impression of the Mars Zhurong rover alongside its lander.

Source: China National Space Administration 

Back in May 2020, China landed its first rover, called Mars Zhurong, on the red planet.

The Zhurong mission is expected to explore the planet for a total of roughly 90 sols (92 Earth days). During that time, it will use equipment, including a magnetic field detector, cameras, spectrometers, and a weather station to collect valuable data for scientists on Earth.

Now, as per a press statement, a new radar image from the Zhurong Mars rover sheds new light on the surface structures of the Utopia Planitia basin, the largest recognized impact basin on Mars with an estimated diameter of 2,050 miles (3,300 km).

Going beneath the red planet's surface

The image, presented in a paper in the journal Nature, reveals multiple sub-layers that are likely from sediment deposition following a series of floods on the red planet millions of years ago.

The new findings, based on the image, will add to the growing body of knowledge surrounding the red planet, which humans from the U.S. and from China aim to reach at some point in the 2030s.

The Utopia Planitia crater is widely thought to have once hosted an ancient ocean, which is why China's space administration chose it as the landing location for its Zhurong mission. Since it reached the red planet in 2020, the Zhurong rover has been traversing the planet's surface, collecting data.

It's one of several examples where China's space administration (CNSA) is working hard to position itself as a space superpower alongside NASA. China, for example, recently revealed it was the first country to detect water directly from the lunar surface with its Chang'e-5 lunar probe.

The new image reveals insight into Utopia Planitia

The new image shows the surface of southern Utopia Planitia. It was put together with data from the rover's ground-penetrating radar, taken when it had traveled roughly 1,117 meters away from its landing site.

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It reveals that the ground of the Utopia basin is separated into many sub-surface layers and is roughly 70 meters thick. The surface, meanwhile, is covered in a layer of regolith (rock and dust) less than 10 meters thick. Though the scientists behind the new paper say more research is needed, they believe the sub-surface layers may be indicative of episodic flooding in Mars' ancient past — specifically during the Late Hesperian to Amazonian period.

The authors also pointed out that the radar data from Zhurong didn't provide evidence of liquid water in the upper 80 meters of the basin surface. They stressed, though, that this doesn't unequivocally rule out its presence.

As CGTN pointed out earlier this month, China has announced it has collected more than 1,480 gigabytes of raw data from the Zhurong rover and its orbiter. Its space agency claims some of that data supports the theory that the Utopia Planitia once hosted an ancient ocean.

China recently announced it hopes to beat NASA and SpaceX by sending astronauts to the red planet by 2033. Once humans do eventually make it to Mars, they will continue the work of the several rover missions on Mars, including Zhurong and NASA's Perseverance.

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