In the Mars Rally 2021, the American rover Perseverance is in the lead, but with some bumps on the way. On the other hand, its Chinese counterpart Zhurong has just won a longer mission after surviving the first 90 suns (as the Martian days are called, are a little longer than those on Earth at around 24 hours and 40 minutes).
It’s not really a race (the two aren’t even in the same location on Mars), but there is a prestige competition between the two major space powers. Perseverance first reached the planet after successfully landing in Jezero Crater on February 18. Since then he has covered 2.17 km – a distance that should not be neglected.
The Zhurong, in turn, landed in Utopia Planitia on May 14th and crossed 889 meters by August 15, when her original mission ended. A little less than half of what the Perseverance odometer reads in half the time NASA’s rover has been on Mars. From that point of view, it’s tough competition. And it reflects how far technology has advanced in terms of artificial intelligence for self-navigation – which makes traveling over terrain more dynamic and less dependent on commands from Earth.
For comparison purposes, the Opportunity rover is the record holder for the distance traveled on Mars, which advanced 45.16 km. But he did so on particularly benign terrain and in business for over 14 years (2004-2018). His twin brother Spirit, under less forgiving conditions, ran for six years (2004-2010) and covered only 7.73 km. Given the carriage ride, it won’t be surprising if both Perseverance and Zhurong beat that record. But there are no guarantees either.
In Utopia Planitia, where the Chinese rover landed, the terrain is cheaper. A landing in the Jezero crater was long considered impossible in view of the dangers of the geological formations. On the other hand, the scientific rewards can be very rich.
In terms of instrumentation, both vehicles work very well and promise great scientific results. But persistence suffered in their first attempt to collect and store a sample from Mars. After the rock was selected, a bit was pulled out with a drill, but it crumbled and was not properly stored in the tube provided for it. The team plans to try again with another stone soon. The idea is that one day these samples can be brought back to Earth (which the Chinese intend, but not by Zhurong).
The image captured by Perseverance shows a hole left on the first unsuccessful attempt to take a sample. (Credit: NASA)
However, we will soon make a stop in the rally. In early October, Mars will pass behind the Sun in relation to Earth, which hinders communication between the two planets. The two rovers are put into “standby” mode until contact can be re-established in the second half of the month. What will come after? Only time can tell.
This column is published in Folha Corrida on Mondays.
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