European Mars orbiter transmits data from Chinese rover to Earth

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express collected data from China’s Zhurong Mars rover and successfully sent it back to Earth after a series of experimental communications tests.

The Zhurong rover was designed only to communicate with its companion orbiter, Tianwen 1; however, the rover has long outlived its planned mission and the orbiter can no longer perform as much data transmission. So China and Europe decided to try an experiment: send data from Zhurong to Mars Express to Earth. That’s a challenge, as the robots’ communications equipment doesn’t match. Zhurong can transmit at a frequency that Mars Express can detect, but not vice versa, so Zhurong sends data without receiving news from the orbiter.

On November 20, Mars Express passed 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) above the Zhurong location on Utopia Planitia, received a batch of data, and then transmitted the data through 230 million miles (370 million km) of space. to the ground stations of the European Space Operations Center. which then sent the data to the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center.

Related: China’s Mars rover Zhurong just took an epic self-portrait on the Red Planet (photos)

“Mars Express successfully received the signals sent by the rover, and our colleagues from the Zhurong team confirmed that all data reached Earth in very good quality,” said Gerhard Billig, a systems engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA). , in a statement.

Mars rovers collect a great deal of science data on the surface, but they don’t carry large sets of communications. Instead, they rely on orbiters to transmit their high volumes of data through the inner solar system to Earth.

Typically, a rover and an orbiter will exchange short messages to establish two communications and transmit data. But, according to ESA, Mars Express transmits its “hello” signal using communication frequencies that are different from those received by the Chinese rover Zhurong Mars, making two-way communication impossible. However, Zhurong can transmit signals using a frequency that Mars Express can receive, so ESA carried out a first trial of a one-way communication technique: “blind” communication, where the sender cannot be sure whether. your signal is being received.

Zhurong, China’s first Mars rover, landed on the Red Planet in May this year and has been exploring Utopia Planitia. With just a small antenna on the rover, its fellow orbiter Tianwen 1 has been transmitting the scientific data from Zhurong to Earth. But with the start of Tianwen 1’s own science mission in November, opportunities to pass on Zhurong’s valuable information have narrowed. Instead, the orbiter is focused on mapping Mars.

A “selfie” of Zhurong and his lander captured by a deployed remote camera. (Image credit: CNSA / PEC)

Existing cooperation between ESA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) paved the way for a series of five communications tests between Mars Express and Zhurong, all carried out in November. (ESA also supported the ground station at various times during Tianwen 1 and Zhurong’s journey to Mars.)

Mars Express received a signal during each of the five tests, but during four of them, the received data was corrupted, an ESA spokesperson told by email. During an investigation into the failures, interference from another unit on Mars Express was held responsible.

However, the fourth test, on November 20, yielded results, as the orbiter successfully collected 233 kilobytes of data and sent it back to Earth. Mission teams are now organizing additional tests. “We look forward to further testing in the future to continue experimenting and further improve this method of communication between space missions,” said Billig.

The teams will check when Mars Express will have visibility of the Zhurong rover and if the tests will be compatible with the orbiter’s science plan. The next test would examine different bit rates and durations of flyovers, ESA said.

“In principle, Mars Express could play a formal relief role for Zhurong in the future, but this would have to be agreed between the two space agencies,” the ESA spokesman told

Mars Express has been in orbit around the Red Planet since December 2003. Its activities include the discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere, mapping the composition of polar ice, and the tentative detection of groundwater below the South Pole.

A report from the China Lunar Exploration Project on the communications test also revealed that Zhurong has covered a total of 4,255 feet (1,297 meters) in 196 Martian days, or suns, since landing on May 14.

Zhurong had already covered 4,111 feet (1,253 meters) in early November, suggesting that the rover has spent time analyzing a sediment-filled depression with its science payloads rather than moving south.

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