Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A Nasa illustration showing a Mars rover fetching rock and soil samples that could be brought back to Earth. Photo: Nasa

How China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission compares with Nasa’s Perseverance rover

  • China’s yet-to-be-named Mars rover is lighter and less complex than Perseverance, but also faster
  • China’s rover is powered by solar panels while Perseverance has a nuclear-powered generator

With multiple countries now on their way to the Red Planet, 2020 is the year of Mars. The United Arab Emirates kicked things off by launching its first Mars probe on July 19. China launched its own probe to the planet four days later. Then on Thursday, the US launched another mission to Mars.

The missions from China and the US are the only ones with rovers that will land on Mars. (The UAE’s Hope mission only sent an orbiter that will monitor the planet from space.) This is also China’s first Mars mission, and it differs greatly from what the US sent up. Here’s a look at how they compare.

But first… What are they called?

Unlike China, Nasa’s rover already has a name: Perseverence. The name was unveiled in March, when it was announced that a middle school student had won a competition to name the Mars 2020 rover.
China’s rover might not have a name, but the mission does. It’s called Tianwen-1, which is inspired by a classical Chinese poem called Heavenly Questions. The mission includes a lander, rover and an orbiter, with the goal of completing all three tasks in a single mission. Landing will be the most difficult part. But China does plan to eventually name the rover. It’s now soliciting ideas for the name globally, allowing people to submit their suggestions on the Baidu app before August 12.
A 1:1 model of China's Mars Rover on exhibit at a Mars mission launch event. Image: CCTV

What are they doing on Mars?

Nasa is using Perseverance to seek signs of ancient life, gather rock and soil samples that could be returned to Earth in a future Mars mission, and test technology for future exploration of the planet. Its mission on Mars will last at least one Martian year, which is 687 days on Earth.
China’s rover has a much shorter mission. It’s designed to operate on the planet for three Martian months, or roughly 92 Earth days. Mission team members say that if landed, the rover will map the geological structure of Mars, investigate the surface soil and water-ice distribution, and measure the Martian climate, among other things.

What are they made of?

Weighing 240 kilograms (529 pounds), China’s 1.8-meter-tall (5.9 feet) rover is much smaller than Nasa’s 2.2-meter-tall (7.2 feet) Perseverance rover, which weighs 1,025 kilograms (2,260 pounds). Based on the successful design of Nasa’s previous Mars rover, 2011’s Curiosity, Perseverance is equipped with more parts than China’s.
Perseverance has a robotic arm that helps it extract samples from Mars’ surface and a range of cameras. Nasa also added two microphones for the first time. China’s rover appears to be less complex, with six instruments that include two cameras and no microphones.
A Nasa illustration of the Mars 2020 rover as it uses its drill to core rock samples on Mars. Photo: AFP
Both rovers have six wheels, but the lighter Chinese rover is faster, boasting a speed of 200 meters per hour (0.12 miles per hour). Perseverance moves at 152 meters per hour (0.09 miles per hour). Nasa admits that this is slow by Earth’s standards, but it calls the rover a “standout performer” on Mars.

How are they powered?

China’s Mars rover is solar-powered, with four wing-like solar panels on the top of the vehicle. While Nasa also used solar panels in past Mars missions, the agency found problems with it. One issue is the planet’s dust storms, which can cover the panels and prevent the rover from getting enough solar energy needed for the mission. So Nasa gave its rovers an upgrade.
China's Mars rover uses four solar panels to power the vehicle. Image: CCTV
Perseverance uses a radioisotope power system called Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). In other words, it’s a nuclear-powered rover. Curiosity is also powered by an MMRTG, which can last 14 years. Nasa says this gives the rover greater mobility over a range of latitudes and altitudes, allowing engineers to more flexibly operate it.
Perseverance is also carrying something else: a tiny four-pound helicopter called Ingenuity. It’s a test to see if powered flight is a viable option in the thin Martian atmosphere. If Ingenuity works, it could herald the next step in humanity’s quest to understand the Red Planet.