In the 2021 Martian rally, the American rover Perseverance is in the lead, but with some bumps along the way. On the other hand, its Chinese counterpart, Zhurong, has just won an extended mission after surviving the first 90 suns (as the Martian days are called, lasting slightly longer than those on Earth, with about 24 hours and 40 minutes) .
It’s not really a race (the two aren’t even in the same place on Mars), but there’s a prestige contest between the two major space powers. Perseverance arrived on the planet first, having successfully landed in the crater Jezero on February 18th. Since then, he has covered 2.17 km – a not negligible distance.
The Zhurong, in turn, landed on May 14 at Utopia Planitia, and crossed 889 meters until August 15, when its initial mission ended. A little less than half of what Perseverance’s odometer has already marked, in half the time NASA’s rover has had on Mars. From that angle, it’s a tight contest. And it reflects how far technology has evolved in terms of artificial intelligence for self-navigation — which makes traveling across terrain more dynamic and less dependent on commands sent from Earth.
For comparison purposes, the record holder for distance covered on Mars is the Opportunity rover, which advanced 45.16 km. But he did so on particularly benign terrain and over more than 14 years in business (2004-2018). Its twin brother Spirit, in less forgiving conditions, operated for six years (2004-2010) and covered only 7.73 km. It won’t be surprising, given the carriage’s ride, 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 more favorable. In the Jezero crater, for some time it was considered that it was impossible to land, considering the dangers offered by the geological formations. On the other hand, the scientific rewards can be very rich.
In terms of instrumentation, both vehicles are operating very well and promise to produce great scientific results. But Perseverance suffered in its first attempt to collect and store a sample of Mars. Having chosen the rock, a drill was used to extract a piece, which however crumbled and ended up not being stored correctly in the tube designated for this purpose. The team plans to try again, with another rock, soon. The idea is that one day these samples can be brought back to Earth (something the Chinese also intend to do, but not through Zhurong).
Image taken by Perseverance reveals hole left by the first attempt to take a sample, unsuccessfully. (Credit: NASA)
Soon, however, we will have a stop in the rally. In early October, Mars will pass behind the Sun with respect to Earth, which impedes communication between the two planets. The two rovers will be put into “standby” mode until contact can be re-established in the second half of the month. What will come after that? Only time will tell.
This column is published on Mondays in Folha Corrida.
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