China nailed its Mars landing – here’s what comes next

NASA's Perseverance Rover may make the lion's share of the scientific headlines this year, but it's about to face tough competition. China, which launched its last Mars mission around the same time as NASA launched its new rover, successfully landed a lander and a rover last weekend. The mission is historic for the country that has tried to keep up with the likes of the US and Russia in the new space race.
The mission started from Earth before NASA's Perseverance mission and arrived on Mars at about the same time. However, instead of landing on the surface immediately like Perseverance did, China chose to start things with an orbiter before releasing a lander and rover to the surface. Now that the rover is underway, we can expect to hear a lot more about the robot named Zhurong in the coming months.
The Zhurong rover isn't as well equipped as NASA's Perseverance, but NASA's first Mars rover wasn't nearly as complex as its newer models either, so this is completely understandable. The rover will explore the area it landed in and examine the material covering the surface. Working with the orbiter and lander, the rover will study interesting rock formations and undertake scientific efforts until it can no longer function.
In contrast to NASA's persistence, which is designed for years in the harsh Martian environment, Zhurong is only designed for a lifespan of about three months. That's enough time to make some discoveries and give China's space agency a good idea of ​​what to send to the Red Planet in the future, but it's also possible the rover will last much longer than planned.
NASA's Opportunity Rover lasted over a decade on Mars, despite an expected lifespan of less than a year. Zhurong would have to be pretty lucky to pull off something like this, but if China's engineers are ahead, we'll likely hear from Zhurong for much longer than just the next 90 days.
As significant as this rover mission is, it is really just a step in China's larger plan. The country desperately wants to be a major player in what is often referred to as the "new space race". Countries like the US, Russia, and groups like the EU are working on the technologies to send people to Mars.
At this point it is impossible to know who will be at the top of this race, especially when so much is unknown about the potential risks of sending people this far. The earliest crewed Mars missions will likely only be in orbital, which means they won't actually land on Mars, but even these missions pose extreme risk to the crew. We'll have to see how things work out, but with China now exploring Mars from afar, it is clear that the country is an important force in space exploration.
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