China’s Mars rover soldiers on after finishing initial programme

China’s Mars rover is soldiering on after completing its initial programme to explore the red planet and search for frozen water that could provide clues to whether it once supported life.

The National Space Administration said the Zhurong rover completed its 90-day programme on August 15 and was in excellent technical condition and fully charged.

Officials said it would continue to explore the area known as Utopia Planitia where it landed on May 14.

China Space
China’s Mars rover (Sam McNeil/AP)

Zhurong has been sending back photos and data via the Tianwen-1 orbiter that crosses over it once a day.

After the US, China is the second country to land and sustainably operate a spacecraft on Mars, where days are 40 minutes longer than on Earth.

At 1.85 metres in height, Zhurong is significantly smaller than the American Perseverance rover, which is exploring the planet with a tiny helicopter.

Nasa expects its rover to collect its first sample for return to Earth as early as 2031.

Space Mars Rover
Nasa’s Perseverance Mars rover (Nasa/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/AP)

China is assembling a permanent space station, with three astronauts now aboard the Tianhe (Heavenly Harmony) core that was put into orbit on April 29.

Two of the astronauts completed their second spacewalk on Friday. All three are due to return to Earth in September and be replaced by a new crew.

China earlier launched two smaller experimental space stations.

It has been excluded from the International Space Station largely at the insistence of the US, which is wary of the Chinese space programme’s secrecy and close military links.

Congressional approval is required for any co-operation between Nasa and the Chinese administration.

China also recently brought back lunar samples, the first by any country’s space programme since the 1970s, and has landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored far side.

The Chinese first put an astronaut into orbit in 2003, becoming the third country to do so.