ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter will try to “listen” to China’s Mars rover

There is quite a bit of activity around Mars. The National Space Administration of China (CNSA) is collecting data from its very first rover, Zhurong, which has been on the surface of Mars since May 14. The rover explores the area around its landing site at Utopia Planitia and gathers important information. on the surface and inside the red planet.

However, he cannot bring this data back to Earth on his own. Instead, it requires the help of orbiters such as the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express. Why?

Rovers like the Zhurong don’t carry the equipment they would need to transmit data directly to Earth, as it would take up too much space for space experiments. They are instead equipped with small, short-range radios similar to those possessed by the spacecraft orbiting Mars, such as ESA’s Mars Express.

Rovers use these radios to send their data to roving orbiters on Mars, which then send it back to Earth where scientists anxiously await to receive and analyze it. And it is (relatively) common to share orbiters for information relay purposes when the rover’s preferred orbiter is not there.

One-way conversation

So far, Zhurong has used the Chinese Tianwen-1 orbiter he arrived with to send information to Earth. But starting in November, ESA’s Mars Express will undertake five tests in which it will attempt to listen to Zhurong and send back the information it captures to ESA’s ESOC operations center in Darmstadt, according to a blog by ESA.

There is however a catch: due to an incompatibility between the two radio systems, the Zhurong rover cannot receive the frequencies used by Mars Express. Fortunately however, he is capable of transmitting a frequency compatible with Mars Express.

How will it work?

When Mars Express reaches the space above the Zhurong landing site at Utopia Planitia, it will turn on its radio and simply listen and record all incoming data. Once it has accumulated all the information it can collect, the spacecraft will turn to Earth and transmit the data through space to ESOC. ESOC will then share the data it receives with the Zhurong team for processing and analysis.