From Friday evening in the United States, China will attempt to land its Tianwen-1 lander on the surface of Mars. After weeks of speculation, China’s National Space Administration has confirmed that the country will seek to land the mission, including its “Zhurong” rover, between 11 p.m. UTC on Friday May 14 and May 19.
Named after an ancient fire god in Chinese mythology, the Zhurong rover has a mass of around 240 kg. This means the Chinese rover is comparable in size to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that NASA landed on Mars in January 2004.
There is a lot of intrigue surrounding the high risk mission. Prior to this mission, China had never sent a spacecraft to Mars. In this unique spacecraft, the country packed both a modestly sized orbiter and lander with a rover. Additionally, no country other than the United States has succeeded in smoothly landing a spacecraft on Mars or deploying a rover. Other countries have tried and failed several times.
So, will China succeed? I informally asked experts in planetary science and missions about the chances of a successful landing. Most of these sources are based in the United States or Europe, so they don’t have extensive knowledge of the Chinese space program, at least not enough to have a probabilistic assessment of the risks of the attempted landing.
That said, the consensus among my sources is that the landing probably has a little over 50% chance of total success, which means the lander lands softly and the Zhurong rover is able to pull away and do significant science. It is designed for a nominal 90 day mission, but it can last longer.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft arrived in orbit on February 10, 2021 and has spent the last three months collecting images of the area where it is due to the earth, the large impact basin of Utopia Planitia. This relatively smooth site in Martian mid-latitudes is where NASA landed the Viking 2 mission in 1976.
If Zhurong survives entering the Martian atmosphere using a combination of parachutes and motorized descent, he will be able to explore an interesting area that may have been covered by an ocean. The rover will study the soil and the nature of the rocks on the surface and look for signs of water or ice below the surface with its radar penetrating the ground. The mission will also test the technologies needed for a possible sample return mission to Mars in the late 2020s.
As a rule, China does not provide a live feed or video of its space operations. Given the high-profile nature of the Zhurong landing, that could change with this mission. This message will be updated if a feed becomes available.