In May, China landed a rover on Mars, finishing essentially the most tough stretch of its mission to ship an orbiter, lander and rover to the purple planet. It was China’s first unbiased mission to Mars, and made the nation solely the second, after the United States, to efficiently place a rover on the planet.
Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of the Tianwen-1 mission, featured in Nature’s 10 — an inventory of ten individuals who helped to form science in 2021. In this prolonged interview, performed over e-mail, Zhang discusses his ideas on the mission to date, the progress of the rover — named Zhurong — and what it means for China’s space-research endeavours. Zhang has made quite a few appearances in the Chinese press however very not often speaks to the worldwide media.
What is your position in the mission and the way massive is the staff?
As the programme’s chief designer, I’m answerable for engineering growth, spacecraft launch and flight management. Once the mission was in flight, I needed to preserve monitor of the spacecraft’s standing, discover the appropriate folks to take care of emergencies and make sure that the probe remained in good working situation, in order that our rover might efficiently land on Mars and obtain its aims. I’m additionally in cost of coordinating scientific analysis by means of exchanges with planetary scientists at house and overseas. Our successes have been because of the concerted efforts of 1000’s of analysis and growth entities and tens of 1000’s of scientific and technological staff members.
Were you assured about sending an orbiter, lander and rover in one mission?
We have been totally conscious that Mars exploration missions are technically difficult and dangerous. China is a latecomer to planetary exploration and science, and confronted a technological leap in comparison with worldwide missions. But China has already realized human area flight and lunar exploration, so the technical groundwork was in place to succeed in Mars.
How have you ever balanced the engineering and scientific mission objectives?
Mars exploration is guided by scientific aims and propels analysis ahead. Mars missions are pretty tough — solely about half of these with a lander or rover have succeeded — however we nonetheless tried to make sure that scientific objectives have been a precedence throughout planning. We optimized the probe’s flight capabilities, the load and vitality calls for of its scientific payloads, and its communication applied sciences to make sure that we might gather a wealthy selection and prime quality of knowledge throughout exploration.
How did you’re feeling while you learnt that Zhurong had efficiently landed?
When I first noticed the telemetry of the touchdown in the management room, I used to be overwhelmed. I used to be moved by the unremitting efforts of the staff. I felt grateful for the help coming from all sectors. With each feeling dashing to my coronary heart, I couldn’t assist however shed tears.
What has the rover been doing in the previous few months?
It has continued to journey to the suspected shoreline of an historical sea and historical land in the southern a part of Utopia Planitia, in Mars’s northern hemisphere, to conduct scientific exploration and discover clues to uncover the thriller of the origin and evolution of Mars.
What are the most important challenges the mission has confronted to date?
Our problem of going to Mars was monumental. For instance, there are a lot of unknowns about its floor topography, local weather and surroundings. We don’t even know what we have no idea about. To equip our rover for an unknown surroundings, we carried out complete mission planning and testing on Earth. We selected a suspension system for Zhurong with six independently pushed wheels, which allow it to maneuver in distinctive methods, akin to strolling like a crab or wriggling like a worm. Because of Mars’s skinny environment, we additionally got here up with distinctive methods of adjusting the aerodynamic form of the touchdown capsule to gradual it down and assure stability throughout descent. Sticking to schedule was additionally a problem — the launch window solely comes as soon as each 26 months, so we’d have needed to await greater than 2 years if we had let this one slide by.
If you would return in time, what would you do in a different way?
This is China’s first Mars mission, so not every thing was accomplished completely. We have been self-reflecting, in search of gaps in contrast with applied sciences utilized by different worldwide missions, and trying out any issues in our implementation.
How has the success of the mission modified area science in China?
The successes of Tianwen-1 have offered us with a brand new alternative to know Mars and can significantly promote the event of China’s area science, particularly planetary science. We have acquired first-hand information on Mars’s terrain, the composition of floor materials, subsurface constructions, the magnetic area, meteorology and local weather. This will give researchers a basis for increasing planetary science in China. The China National Space Administration has been actively selling worldwide exchanges and cooperation with overseas scientists.
Where will China’s area endeavours be a decade from now?
Tianwen-1 is step one in China’s exploration of the planets, which will probably be adopted by asteroid exploration, a Mars sample-return mission and a fly-by of Jupiter and its moons. Technology developed in our profitable missions will contribute to future scientific analysis.
This interview has been edited for size and readability.