China has landed its first spacecraft on the surface of Mars, according to Chinese state media.
The mission, called Tianwen-1, or “questions to heaven,” is the first to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.
If everything went according to plan, a gumdrop-shaped landing capsule separated from the Tianwen-1 orbiter on Friday evening and fell toward Mars. With the lander and rover safely tucked inside, the capsule plummeted through the Martian atmosphere, friction heating the material around it to temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
High above the red-dust Martian surface, a supersonic parachute had to deploy to slow the capsule’s fall. As the lander neared its destination, thrusters should have fired downward to help it decelerate. Then it should have lowered itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.
China has not released details about the state of the lander or rover. But if everything is in good shape, the landing would make China the third nation to ever successfully put a robot on the Martian surface. It’s the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971.
Tianwen-1 launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Landing was “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. Only half the spacecraft that have ever attempted a Mars landing have succeeded.
Now, China’s first Mars lander and rover are sitting in the middle of Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.
If all goes well, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil. The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. It’s set to explore the region and search for its water ice with ground-penetrating radar.
The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.
“Landing safely on Mars is a huge challenge, especially for China’s first soft landing attempt,” Long Xiao, a planetary scientist at the China University of Geosciences, told National Geographic ahead of the attempt. “But it is a necessary step for Mars and deep-space exploration.”
The Zhurong rover has 90 days to explore Mars – for now
At 530 pounds, Zhurong is about the size of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers NASA landed on Mars in 2004. It could take more than a week to deploy the lander’s ramp and roll the rover onto Martian soil, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum. Then it will open its butterfly-wing solar panels to soak up the sunlight and charge its batteries.
Once the rover is on the ground, it has about 90 days to study Mars. That’s its official mission timeline, but Spirit and Opportunity had the same three-month window and ended up exploring Mars for six and 14 years, respectively.
The Tianwen-1 orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet,” according to a journal article by Tianwen-1 scientists.
This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.
China is about to attempt its first Mars landing – a feat accomplished successfully by only half the spacecraft that have ever tried.
Tianwen-1, as the mission is called, means “questions to heaven.” It aims to be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.
The first steps are complete. The mission launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Now the orbiter is preparing to release a capsule carrying the lander and rover. The capsule must plummet through the Martian atmosphere and deploy a parachute, then release the lander, which should fire downward-facing thrusters to lower itself to the Martian surface. If that all goes well, the Tianwen-1 lander will later deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil.
The landing attempt could happen as soon as Friday evening and as late as Tuesday (in Beijing, that’s Saturday to Wednesday), according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
Any landing attempt would occur early in the morning Beijing time, the CNSA said. That would be evening on the US East Coast. Twitter accounts that monitor China’s space programs reported that a Friday landing would happen at 7:11 p.m. ET.
Landing is “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. If the Tianwen-1 lander safely touches down on Martian soil, it would be the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971. Success would make China the third nation to land on Mars.
The intended landing spot is in Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely that Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.
China’s 530-pound, solar-powered rover is set to explore the region and study its water ice. The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.
When the time comes, China’s gumdrop-shaped landing capsule will separate from the Tianwen-1 orbiter and fall towards Mars.
The capsule must protect the robots inside as it plummets through the Martian atmosphere at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A supersonic parachute must deploy to slow the fall. As the lander nears its destination, thrusters have to fire downwards to help it decelerate. Then it should lower itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.
As with any Mars landing, the spacecraft must conduct this entire process autonomously. Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal to travel from Mars to Earth, and vice versa, mission controllers can’t communicate with the spacecraft in real time. When they receive the signal that the capsule is falling towards Mars, it will already be on the surface, dead or alive.
That’s why aerospace engineers refer to this part of a Mars mission as “seven minutes of terror.”
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission,” Allen Chen, who leads that process for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing before its landing. “Success is never assured.”
Meet Zhurong: the 90-day Mars rover
The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. The process of deploying the ramp for the rover and getting it onto Mars’ surface could take more than a week, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum.
Zhurong’s name “echoes with the Chinese name of the red planet, Huoxing (meaning the planet of fire),” according to a CNSA statement. “Fire brought warmth and brightness to the ancestors of humankind, and fire lit up human civilization. Naming China’s first Mars rover after the god of fire signifies igniting the flame of China’s planetary exploration.”
Zhurong is set to explore Utopia Planitia for 90 Martian days, according to a journal article by scientists on the Tianwen-1 team.
Meanwhile, the orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal, according to the scientists, is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”
This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on May 13, 2021.
NASA’s Perseverance rover left its footprints on Mars on Thursday after going for its first drive. The jaunt proved the vehicle can make its way around the red planet.
Since Perseverance landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18, it has been calibrating its instruments and upgrading software. In this initial drive, Perseverance moved about 13 feet (4 meters) from its landing spot, made a 150-degree turn to the left, and backed up about 8 feet (2.5 meters) – a routine that it “executed perfectly,” according to NASA engineer Anais Zarifian.
As it drove, the rover’s navigation cameras snapped photos of its tracks in the dirt behind it.
“Our first drive went incredibly well,” Zarifian, who works on the rover’s mobility team, said in a press briefing on Friday. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see wheel tracks, and I’ve seen a lot of them.”
The team has another, longer drive planned for the rover late on Friday, and is hoping for yet another on Saturday.
“So many people I can’t even count have worked towards this very moment for years,” Zarifian said. “It’s just amazing to see. I don’t think the team could’ve been happier.”
Life in the fast lane
Perseverance spent seven months flying through space to reach Mars. Since its landing, it has been adjusting to Mars life, getting its space legs, and preparing for its mission: to spend at least two years scouring an ancient Martian lake bed for signs of fossilized alien microbes. Perseverance is equipped to trek across Martian cliffs and dunes, and to collect up to 43 samples of Martian rock and dirt for a future mission to bring back to Earth.
The rover is better prepared for the rugged Martian terrain than any vehicle before it. Because of the Jezero Crater’s watery past, the area is rich with scientific potential, but NASA didn’t have the technology to explore it until now. Perseverance will have to navigate boulder fields, sand dunes, and cliffs hundreds of feet tall. It may even climb the crater rim in a few years.
It can do this thanks to its six titanium wheels, which each have their own motor. The wheels are narrower and their metal is thicker than on previous rovers, and each is lined with 48 cleats. That makes the wheels more resistant to the sharp rocks that tore holes in the wheels of Perseverance’s predecessor, Curiosity.
The rover can’t rotate those wheels while it’s driving, though – it has to stop whenever it needs to change direction. At its fastest, the rover moves at 0.1 miles per hour.
Still, in terms of miles it can cover per day, Perseverance drives about five times faster than Curiosity. That’s because the rover’s computers can process images and navigate while it drives. So it doesn’t have to pause for calculations every time it sees a new obstacle.
“‘Perseverance can walk and chew gum at the same time,’ is the phrase we like to use,” Zarifian said. “Which means more time to do science.”
Perseverance is at a crossroads
NASA’s Perseverance engineers and scientists are already planning routes for the rover to travel in order to reach the the river delta that once fed Lake Jezero.
They’ve picked two potential paths. The counterclockwise route, going north, has easier terrain, but the southern route would take Perseverance past some mineral deposits left over from the river delta.
“We’re working with engineers now to determine which path is most efficient and safest and most scientifically interesting for the rover to explore,” Katie Stack Morgan, the mission’s deputy project scientist, said in the briefing.
Both paths would end below the delta’s 200-foot-tall cliffs. From there, the team aims to climb the rover up to the ancient river’s mouth.
But before Perseverance starts on either path, it has a major task to complete. In the spring, the rover is scheduled to drop the first-ever interplanetary helicopter out of its belly – a four-pound drone called Ingenuity. The small rotocraft will then attempt up to five test flights while Perseverance’s cameras look on.
Then the rover will turn its lenses toward the cliffs, put those wheels to work, and begin its hunt for signs of alien life.
NASA’s Perseverance rover hasn’t started roaming the red planet just yet, but its cameras have been busy at work.
A suite of ruggedized, off-the-shelf sports cameras captured unprecedented footage of the rover descending to Mars and landing in Jezero Crater on Thursday. Then the rover’s science and navigation cameras began snapping away as soon as it was on the ground. The results are breathtaking.
So far, NASA has published more than 4,700 images from the rover, with many more to come.
“It’s been a firehose of data,” Justin Maki, a Perseverance imaging scientist and the chief of the instrument-operations team, said in a press conference on Monday.
The new photos reveal the sand dunes, rocks, and distant 200-foot-tall cliffs of the ancient lake bed where Perseverance now sits. It’s the most hazardous terrain any Mars landing has ever targeted, but it’s already paying off in unprecedented portraits of the red planet.
“I review images for Mars, like, every day. That’s what I do. And when I saw these images come down, I have to say, I was truly amazed,” Maki said. “I know it’s been a tough year for everybody, and we’re hoping that maybe these images will help brighten people’s day.”
After landing on Thursday, NASA’s Perseverance rover immediately started beaming back thousands of photos of the red planet.
These include the first-ever images of a rover landing on Mars. Five cameras captured more than 23,000 images during Perseverance’s descent.
All these images had to be color corrected. Here’s what they looked like before that.
During the landing, the capsule dropped the rover, and then a jetpack attached to Perseverance’s back fired its engines and flew to the landing site. There, it lowered the rover on 25-foot nylon cables.
As it approached, the jetpack’s engines kicked up swirling clouds of dust on the Martian surface.
Then the jetpack released the rover and flew away to crash-land at a safe distance.
Before the dust settled, the rover was already beaming back its first photos from the Martian surface.
The first images revealed some very holey rocks that got NASA scientists excited. The rocks could be volcanic, or water could have tunneled through them.
Over the weekend, NASA engineers instructed Perseverance to deploy its mast. That gave a much better view of both the landscape and the rover.
The rover’s Mastcam-Z camera, named for its powerful zoom lens, used a color wheel built into the rover to calibrate itself.
“We’re going to get incredibly high-resolution photos from this imaging system,” Maki said.
High on its mast, Perseverance’s Navcam camera can see everything. It will help the rover drive.
To the west of the rover, the Navcam can see the cliffs of the river delta on the horizon. That’s where the rover is headed.
The Perseverance team on Earth stitched six of those images together to create a 360-degree panorama.
NASA turned that panorama into a video that you can drag left and right to see the view from Perseverance’s perspective.
NASA just released unprecedented video from its Perseverance rover.
The footage was recorded on Thursday as the robot plummeted to Mars, deployed a parachute, and navigated to a safe landing spot using a jetpack.
Landing on Mars is a high-stakes, high-speed feat with only a 50% historical success rate. Perseverance managed to not only stick the landing, but also recorded the entire plunge with five ruggedized commercial cameras. (There were six, but one failed.)
All in all, the cameras captured over 23,000 images of the vehicle descending to Mars. NASA released the resulting footage on Monday. The three-minute video below is the first of its kind. No previous spacecraft has ever captured itself descending to Mars.
“These videos and these images are the stuff of our dreams. It’s what we’ve been dreaming about for years,” Al Chen, who led the rover’s entry, descent, and landing process, said in a NASA briefing on Monday.
Engineers also equipped the rover with a microphone to record the landing, but it did not capture any audio.
What you’re seeing in that video
Five cameras together recorded the rover’s descent, starting as the capsule carrying Perseverance deployed a 70-foot-wide parachute as it fell toward Mars at about 12,000 mph. Three cameras were trained on the parachute to capture it ballooning above, though one of those didn’t work. The parachute slowed the capsule’s fall to about 150 mph – faster than a falling skydiver on Earth (sans parachute).
Then the capsule jettisoned its heat shield, exposing the rover’s belly and a camera that surveyed the ground below. That camera revealed the landing site in Mars’ Jezero Crater growing larger and larger as the rover neared the ground.
About 3.5 billion years ago, rivers flowed into this ancient impact basin, feeding a lake that may have sustained microscopic alien life. Perseverance aims to explore the dried-up lake bed in search of fossils of ancient microbes. The cliffs of the river delta appear on the right side of the video.
About a mile above the Martian surface, the capsule dropped the rover with a jetpack strapped to its back. In the video, this maneuver produces a bright flash of light about 2 minutes and 5 seconds in.
The jetpack then fired its engines and steered Perseverance toward a safe, flat landing spot. The ground-facing camera shows Martian dust swirling as the jetpack approaches.
A camera on the jetpack looked down at the rover, and another camera on the rover looked up at the jetpack. That camera watched the jetpack as it lowered the rover on 25-foot nylon cords until it touched the ground. Then the jetpack cut the rover loose and flew away to crash-land itself at a safe distance.
This whole entry, descent, and landing process took just seven minutes – the “seven minutes of terror,” as some engineers call it.
“I can watch those videos for hours and keep seeing new stuff every time,” Chen said.
Prior to Perseverance, the closest NASA ever came to capturing video of a Mars landing was a stop-motion movie that Curiosity captured of the ground below as it descended to Mars. In that footage, the only part of the landing process one can actually see is the heat shield falling away.
Perseverance is almost ready to film the first Mars helicopter flight
Perseverance is NASA’s fifth and most sophisticated Mars rover. It launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July and traveled nearly 300 million miles to reach the red planet.
The rover is poised to spend the next two years scouring the river delta of Jezero Crater for signs of ancient alien life. The water that once flowed into the crater would have deposited mud and clay where it met the lake. If there was microbial life on ancient Mars, it could have been trapped and immortalized in those mineral deposits.
But Perseverance’s immediate first steps are to make sure all its systems and scientific instruments are working. Over the next few weeks, mission controllers will oversee those checks and upgrade the rover’s software to prepare it for its new life on Mars.
When that’s done, the rover is set to drive to an open field, release a small helicopter called Ingenuity from its belly, and record video as the drone attempts the first rotocraft flights on Mars. Two cameras on the bottom of Ingenuity will record video, too.
Ingenuity is scheduled for up to five test flights over 30 Martian days (31 Earth days). It’s just a technology demonstration, but if all goes well, the flights could show we have a a new way to explore other planets.
Once Ingenuity has flown, Perseverance can set off on its two-year mission to explore Jezero Crater. NASA hopes the rover will collect its first rock sample this summer.
NASA is about to share unprecedented video footage of its new Perseverance rover landing on Mars.
The rover, which touched down in the planet’s Jezero Crater on Thursday, has spent the weekend beaming photos and video back to Earth. Now, NASA is ready to reveal the first video footage in a press conference on Monday.
The new video, titled “How to Land on Mars,” was captured as Perseverance touched down, according to a NASA statement teasing the footage release.
That means, for the first time in history, you’ll be able to watch a rover landing on Mars.
The closest NASA has ever gotten to such footage is a stop-motion movie that Curiosity captured during its descent to the red planet. The footage doesn’t show the rover, or its parachute and jetpack.
Perseverance tried to revolutionize Martian cinema with its descent and landing. It’s possible that six cameras and a microphone captured the entire process: a capsule carrying the rover plummeting to Mars at 12,000 mph, a parachute to slow it, and a jetpack flying the rover to a safe landing.
“I just want to repeat: you WANT to take time and attend this press conference! Trust me – you will not regret it!” NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen wrote on Twitter.
A livestream of the press conference, embedded below, begins at 2 p.m. ET.
Beyond sending Earthlings incredible video footage, Perseverance has an ambitious mission ahead of it. The rover is set to explore Jezero Crater for signs of microbial life that scientists think may have thrived there 3.5 billion years ago, when the crater was filled with water. Back then, a river flowing into Lake Jezero would have dumped mud and clay that could have trapped communities of microbial life (like algae), imprinting them as layer in the rock.
Over the next two years, Perseverance aims to gather about 40 samples of rock and soil across the lake bed and the river delta. NASA plans to send another mission in the 2030s to grab those samples and bring them back to Earth. Aside from providing unprecedented documentation of Mars geology, these samples could offer the first evidence of microbial alien life.
But first, the rover has a few weeks of hardware checkouts and software upgrades. Then it has another video-recording detour before it begins exploring.
In the spring, Perseverance is set to release a small helicopter called Ingenuity from a compartment in its belly. The rover will capture footage as the drone attempts to fly over a Martian field.
NASA’s new Mars rover, a nuclear-powered robot called Perseverance, has successfully landed in the red planet’s Jezero Crater.
The rover’s touchdown is the first step in what could be a decade-long effort to bring the first samples of Martian rock – possibly including alien fossils – back to Earth.
The rover, lovingly nicknamed “Percy” by its engineers, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July and traveled 300 million miles to the red planet.
On Thursday, the capsule carrying Perseverance screamed through the Martian atmosphere at about 12,000 mph, released a 70-foot-wide parachute to slow its fall, then dropped its heat shield. That gave the rover’s cameras and radar system a view of the landscape below, which an onboard navigation system used to find a safe landing spot.
About a mile above the Martian surface, the capsule dropped the rover. A jetpack attached to the robot fired up its engines and steered Perseverance’s to its landing location, avoiding hazardous boulder fields, sand dunes, and 200-foot cliffs. Then the jetpack gently lowered the rover on 25-foot nylon cords until its wheels touched the ground.
At about 3:55 p.m. ET, NASA mission managers received the signal that the rover had touched down, and mission control burst into applause.
Perseverance is decked out with cameras and a microphone that should have recorded its entire descent – a first for a Mars landing. Initial images and thumbnail videos could reach Earth as early as this weekend. NASA engineers expect to have full video footage of the landing after a few weeks. (It takes a long time for the rover to beam all that data across space.)
A hunt for ancient alien microbes
This is NASA’s fifth Mars-rover landing, but it’s the first interplanetary mission to search for imprints of past alien life.
Perseverance is poised to spend the next two years exploring the ancient river delta that fed Mars’ Lake Jezero about 3.5 billion years ago. Back then, alien microbes may have swum in the water that filled the crater and various rivers and lakes across the Martian surface.
As the river dumped mud and minerals at the mouth of Lake Jezero, it may have trapped colonies of microbes, forming fossil rocks called stromatolites. That’s what Perseverance will look for along Jezero’s ancient lake bed, shorelines, and river delta.
But first, the rover will spend the next few weeks checking all its systems and instruments. After that, it’s set to release the first-ever interplanetary helicopter for some test flights. Once the space drone has flown, Perseverance can begin hunting for signs of long-gone alien microbes.
The rover carries 43 sample tubes so that it can stash samples of rock and soil. NASA plans to send another mission to retrieve those vials and bring them back to Earth in the 2030s.
“Samples from Mars have potential to profoundly change our understanding of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a news briefing ahead of the landing. “Even now, NASA continues to study moon samples returned by the Apollo program more than 50 years ago. We expect samples of Mars to provide new knowledge for decades to come.”
Probing the history of a desert planet
Jezero Crater is the most dangerous landing site that any Mars mission has ever targeted, but the payoff could be great. Various mineral deposits across the crater’s bed, the river delta, the ancient shorelines, and the crater rim hold a wide variety of types of rocks and soil. By collecting samples, Perseverance could help scientists learn about all kinds of environments on the red planet.
The rover carries seven science instruments that can analyze Martian rocks. It can capture images of rocks and soil in UV and visible light, probe them with radar, scan with X-rays to determine their composition, and search for organic compounds with a laser.
NASA’s Perseverance team expects the rover to gather its first samples sometime in the summer.
The robot can also move around three times faster than its predecessors, so it could cover up to 10 miles in its first Mars year (two Earth years). After that, it’s likely to get an extended mission that could take it up the crater’s 1,600-foot-tall rim. There, it would analyze the deep layers of rock cut in the Martian crust, which were exposed by a space object that struck the planet and created this crater billions of years ago. That investigation could provide insight into eons of Martian history.
Even if Perseverance finds no alien fossils, that will be important information. To date, every habitable environment on Earth that scientists have examined has hosted life.
“If we do a deep exploration of Jezero Crater with the rover and its instruments … and we find no evidence of life, we will have shown that in at least one place, there is a habitable environment that is not inhabited,” Ken Farley, the project scientist for Perseverance, said in a pre-landing briefing. “If that’s what we find, it would tell us something important: that habitability alone is not sufficient, that something else has to be present – some, perhaps, magic spark – that causes life to occur.”
Perseverance’s cargo could revolutionize space exploration
The small drone Perseverance carries is called Ingenuity. After its system checks, the rover should drive to an open field, unfold its belly panels, and lower the little helicopter for the first-ever controlled flights on another planet.
Perseverance will attempt to record video of Ingenuity’s flights. They could be the first demonstration of a new way to explore other planets.
The mission will also test technologies that could support future human expeditions to Mars. The rover’s sophisticated landing-navigation system was the first of its kind, and future Mars astronauts may rely on similar technology. Perseverance also carries a device that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, it’s a prototype meant to test the technology on the red planet.
Oxygen is scarce in Mars’s atmosphere, and it’s unlikely that astronauts could bring enough of it to Mars to breathe there, let alone to fuel spaceships for the long journey home. So MOXIE aims to produce the crucial gas out of thin air.
The device electrochemically splits the molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, and combines the oxygen molecules into O2. It analyzes the product’s purity, aiming for about 99.6% O2. Then it releases both the breathable oxygen and the carbon monoxide back into Mars’ atmosphere. Future scaled-up devices would store the oxygen in tanks for astronauts and rockets to use.
Finally, Perseverance carries a small weather station to monitor dust, radiation, and weather changes on the planet – all things that future astronauts would need to keep an eye on.