China’s Zhurong Mars rover sends back first images of the red planet


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Zhurong, the China National Space Administration’s first Mars rover, has beamed back its first images from its new home on Mars, the administration shared Wednesday.

With the top of its body covered in solar panels to soak up energy for its exploration mission, the rover appears to be in good condition as it sits above the rusty, dusty Martian surface. Zhurong, a part of the Tianwen-1 mission, makes China the third nation to successfully perform a soft landing on Mars, following the United States and the Soviet Union.

This fuller image of Zhurong captures more of its body and a communications antenna.

This fuller image of Zhurong captures more of its body and a communications antenna.

Image: china national space administration

Zhurong’s landing on May 15 had a similar entry and descent to that of NASA’s infamous seven minutes of terror, including a blisteringly hot drop through the atmosphere with little more than a large parachute to slow it down. At the time of landing, it took 18 minutes for a signal going at the speed of light to cross the gap between Earth and Mars, making a change of strategy during descent out of the question.

Instead of being lowered into a soft landing with a rocket-propelled crane like NASA did with Perseverance, Zhurong touched down aboard a lander, and will eventually reach the surface by driving down a ramp. That ramp can be seen in a second black-and-white image.

This view from Zhurong shows the ramps descending from the Tianwen-1 lander down to the Martian surface.

This view from Zhurong shows the ramps descending from the Tianwen-1 lander down to the Martian surface.

Image: china national space administration

This method of gently moving the rover from the lander to the surface via ramp is similar to how China deployed its Chang’e 3 mission’s Yutu rover on the moon. CNSA has not publicly announced when Zhurong will make its way to the surface.

Zhurong landed in a southern part of the Utopia Planitia, a volcanic stretch of land in Mars’ northern hemisphere. Utopia Planitia was first visited by NASA’s Viking 2 lander in 1976. Perseverance’s landing zone in the Jezero Crater is roughly 1,000 miles west of Zhurong’s.

Once it gets rolling, Zhurong will be searching for signs of past life, a quest that has propelled missions to the red planet ever since the earliest years of space exploration. The rover has a handful of scientific instruments on board to analyze rocks, soil, larger geography, and the local atmosphere. Looking to the future, the rover will also be searching for and analyzing ice deposits beneath the surface for potential use in crewed missions to our planetary neighbor.

Zhurong and its lander traveled the nearly 300 million miles to Mars aboard the larger Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which included an orbiter that is currently locked into the planet’s orbit. The combination orbiter/lander was an ambitious mission for CNSA as Tianwen-1 marks the administration’s first mission to Mars.





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