China has released the first photos taken by its Zhurong rover on Mars.
The forward view shows the landscape in front of the robot while it is on its landing pad; the image behind reveals Zhurong’s solar panels. The rover landed on the red planet early Sunday morning Beijing time. In doing so, it made China only the second nation – after America – to successfully place a probe on the surface of Mars and use it for a significant period of time. Chinese scientists hope to get at least 90 days of Martian service from the six-wheeled robot at its location on Utopia Planitia, a vast terrain in the planet’s northern hemisphere.
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China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) has posted images. There are also a couple of short videos recording the moment when the rover’s aerosol – the capsule it used to enter the Martian atmosphere – departs from the Tianwen-1 orbiter, the satellite that transports the rover from Earth. The surface images tell us that critical hardware deployments after landing have been cleanly completed. These implementations included the deployment of solar panels to power the robot; the release of the antenna to communicate with Tianwen-1, then with the controllers in China; and the extension of the descent ramp that Zhurong will soon carry out to begin his mobile mission.
Zhurong looks a lot like the US space agency (NASA) Spirit and Opportunity vehicles from the 2000s. It weighs about 240 kg. A tall tree carries cameras to take pictures and aid navigation; five additional tools will study the mineralogy of local rocks and the general nature of the environment, including time. Like current American rovers (Curiosity and Perseverance), Zhurong has a laser instrument to hit rocks to evaluate their chemistry. It also has radar to search for water ice below the surface, a capability it shares with Perseverance.
Utopia Planitia is where NASA landed its Viking-2 mission in 1976. It is a colossal basin – more than 3,000 km in diameter – that was formed by an impact early in the history of Mars. There is some evidence that it held an ocean a long time ago. Remote sensing by satellites indicates that there are significant ice reserves deep down.
America put down the much larger (one ton) Perseverance robot in February. Europe, which has failed twice with landing attempts, will send a rover named Rosalind Franklin to Mars next year (in a joint project with the Russians).