It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the successful landing of the Chinese Zhurong rover on Mars, which took place last Friday at 8:18 p.m. (Brazilian time) (14). Descending to the surface of the red planet is never easy, and China did so on the first attempt with a respectable 240 kg wheeled vehicle.
It’s not as big as the Americans Curiosity (899 kg) and Perseverance (1,025 kg), the last two rovers to go down there. But it’s bigger than its direct predecessor Spirit and Opportunity (185 kg) and bigger than the two Yutu (120 kg) robotic moon jeeps introduced by China. Massa is a good translator for embedded functions and the ability to transport large payloads to distant destinations, so comparison is important.
Beyond that, however, we must remember that China did something many tried, but only NASA made it until last Friday: successfully land and operate a probe on Martian soil. Not even the Soviet Union had achieved this at the height of the space race. His best result with the Mars 3 probe was a soft landing, followed by 20 meager hours of operation before the module crashed. That was in 1971. All subsequent attempts were even worse. Recently, in 2016, Russia tried the Schiaparelli module again in collaboration with the European Space Agency. It went wrong.
The Europeans themselves hit the post with the English module Beagle-2, a brave (and cheap) attempt to descend to Martian soil in 2003. The mission failed, but satellite imagery showed it was close. The module landed, but did not open all of the petals on the solar panel, preventing contact with the earth.
Last year Europe postponed the delivery of its ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin after a series of issues involving testing the supersonic parachute to traverse the weak Martian atmosphere. The flight was for the next opportunity in 2022.
The Chinese had already achieved an unprecedented feat in 2019 when they carried out the first robot landing on the other side of the moon with the Chang’e-4 mission. NASA had neither done nor tried. Chang’e-5 conducted the first robotic collection of lunar soil samples last year since the Soviet Luna-24 in 1976.
At the same time, the country is making great strides in its manned program, which began building a space station modeled on the Russian Mir last month with the launch of its main module. The first crew to occupy it is expected to rise in June. With this, China already surpasses everything the former Soviet Union did most importantly in space during the Cold War. Not bad for those who only launched their first astronaut in 2003.
This column is published in Folha Corrida on Mondays.
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