This week on Mars

This week has been a busy one on the Red Planet – last Saturday morning, Australian time, China became the third country to land a rover on Mars.

A black and white picture of a barren landscape. There is a ramp at the bottom
This is a photo from a navigation camera on China’s Mars rover Zhurong released on May 19, 2021 about 4 days after landing. The ramp to the Martian surface from Zhurong’s lander is visible, as are two subsurface radar instruments on the rover and the Martian horizon in the wide-angle view. Credit: China National Space Administration

The six-wheeled robot, Zhurong, soon sent back its first images and will now embark on 90 days of exploration of a gigantic icy region known as Utopia Planitia.

This landing site – about 1,800 kilometres northeast of NASA’s Perseverance rover – has geologists pretty excited, with many interesting features to study including ancient mud volcanoes, impact craters, sand dunes and subsurface ice.

The rover has a top speed of 200 metres per hour, though it’s unlikely to zoom around the surface as navigating the rocky terrain is complex – but Zhurong is still estimated to cover around 100 metres a day, faster than any of the five NASA rovers before it.

So how is Perseverance doing?

After landing in February, the newest NASA rover caused quite a stir when its Ingenuity helicopter performed the first controlled flight on Mars. But Perseverance itself is also ramping up to get some research done in its quest to find life.

Perseverance’s predecessor, Curiosity, is also still trucking along and delivering science results. A NASA team back on Earth has discovered that organic salts are likely present on Mars – and Curiosity’s instruments may be able to detect them. These salts contain carbon and are the remnants of organic compounds, which would either have been formed by geologic processes or by ancient microbial life.

“If we determine that there are organic salts concentrated anywhere on Mars, we’ll want to investigate those regions further, and ideally drill deeper below the surface where organic matter could be better preserved,” says James M. T. Lewis, an organic geochemist NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Lewis was lead author on the recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. He suggests that Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument could be capable of detecting these organic salts, which it will search for as it moves into a new going on Mount Sharp in Gale Crater, 3700 kilometres from Perseverance’s landing site.

But the US and China may not have a monopoly on the Martian surface for long. After some setbacks, the ExoMars rover – a joint effort between the European Space Agency and Russia – is on track to touch down on the Red Planet in 2023.

Watch this space – literally.

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