China's Mars rover has amassed reams of novel geological data - Nature.com
Nov 30, 2021 2 mins, 53 secs

More than 30 scientists across mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau are rushing to process data collected by China’s Mars rover, Zhurong, and by the nation’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which is in orbit around the planet.

Since September, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), which has been receiving the data from space, has released nearly 200 gigabytes of information that was collected from eight instruments on the rover and orbiter between February and June.

This is “of great scientific interest” as it might provide evidence of an ancient ocean, says Bo Wu, a planetary scientist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who is analysing some of the data.

In September, Zhurong was powered down into hibernation by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) because Mars had passed behind the Sun, relative to Earth, meaning that communication was lost.

The month-long break offered mission scientists at research institutes across China a chance to start analysing data.

Some researchers had already received images of Mars from the orbiter’s cameras in March, and the CNSA had previously shared with the public images and videos taken by the rover during its descent and from the surface.

This data set includes images from Zhurong’s navigation camera; climatic data on temperature, pressure and wind speed; information on the chemical composition of rocks, soil and sand dunes from a laser spectrometer; and clues from below the surface from its ground-penetrating radar.

Apart from the handful of images and videos released by the CNSA, few scientific insights about the mission have been released or published until now.

The fact that this mission is China’s first to the surface of another planet might also have slowed things down compared with NASA’s recent Mars missions.

David Flannery, an astrobiologist at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, who is in communication with scientists in China, says that the team’s approach to managing data could also have contributed to the delay in releasing new insights.

With NASA’s Perseverance mission, which Flannery is involved in, each instrument on the rover is designed by a different team, which has exclusive access to data from that instrument for a few months before it becomes available to all.

The CNSA released this image in July of the view from the lander up towards the parachute as it drifted down to the surface of Mars.Credit: CNSA.

The study “provides useful data about surface soil properties”, says Xiao Long, a planetary geologist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan.

China’s Mars rover returns first images — scientists say the view is promising.

So far, the data has been shared only with researchers directly involved with the mission, but Wu says that the NAOC will at some point release them to the public and the international community.

Wenzhe Fa, a planetary scientist at Peking University, Beijing, who is analysing Zhurong’s radar data, says that on 11 November, the CNSA deployed and began to test the antenna for the orbiter’s radar.

Also earlier this month, the CNSA and the European Space Agency (ESA) trialled whether the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter could be used to relay Zhurong’s data to Earth — an exercise that Pan says is an “amazing step” towards increased international collaboration with China

As Zhurong resumes its journey, Bo says that he and his team are providing “suggestions for future data collection” that take in surface features of particular scientific interest

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