New Images of Mars From China’s Rover

On May 14th, 2021, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) achieved another major milestone when the Tianwen-1 lander successfully soft-landed on Mars, making China the second nation in the world to land a mission on Mars and establish communications from the surface. Shortly thereafter, China National Space Agency (CNSA) shared the first images taken by the Tianwen-1 lander.

By May 22nd, 2021, the Zhurong rover descended from its lander and drove on the Martian surface for the first time. Since then, the rover has spent 63 Earth days conducting science operations on the surface of Mars and has traveled over 450 meters (1475 feet). On Friday, July 9th, and again on July 15th, the CNSA released new images of the Red Planet that were taken by the rover as it made its way across the surface.

Since the rover deployed to the surface of Mars, it has been traveling southward to explore and inspect the terrain and has taken daily images of rocks, sand dunes, and other features using its Navigation and Topography Cameras (NaTeCam). Meanwhile, other instruments – like the Mars Rover Penetrating Radar (RoPeR), Mars Rover Magnetometer (RoMAG), Mars Climate Station (MCS) – have also been collecting data on Mars’ magnetic field, weather, and subsurface.

Whenever the rover came across notable landforms, it relied on its Mars Surface Compound Detector (MarSCoDe) and Multispectral Camera (MSCam) to carry out fixed-point scans to determine their composition. Among the new images are the two Martian rocks shown above (courtesy of CNSA via Xinhuanet) that revealed the rocks’ texture features, the thick layers of dust covering them, and impressions left by the ruts of the rover.

Other images (shown below, also from CNSA via Xinhuanet) include a landscape shot that was taken by Zhurong on June 26th, the rover’s 42nd day on the Martian surface (Sol 42). On this day, the rover arrived in a sandy area and took images of a red dune located roughly 6 meters (~20 ft) away. As you can see (top gallery image), the dune has several rocks strewn about it, the one directly ahead of Zhurong measuring 34 cm (13.4 inches) wide.

The next image (bottom left) was taken on July 4th, Zhurong’s 50th day on the Martian surface (Sol 50), after the rover drove to the south side of the dune – which measures 40 m (~130 ft) long, 8 m (26.25 ft) wide and 0.6 m high (2 ft). The fifth and final landscape image (bottom right) was taken when the Zhurong rover was at a distance of 210 m (690 ft) from its landing site and 130 m (~425 ft) from the lander’s back cover and parachute.

These components were part of the Tianwen-1 mission’s Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) module. Whereas the back cover ensured that the rover and lander safely made it through deep-space and survived the turbulent ride through Mars’ atmosphere, the parachute was what allowed for their controlled descent through the atmosphere so they could make a soft landing.

These components are just visible in the upper right corner of the top image while a cluster of stones of various shapes is visible on the left. More recent images acquired by the rover were released on July 15th, 2021, which showed the rover inspecting the back cover and parachute more closely (see below). The first image (top left) was acquired three days prior and shows these two components on the rover’s left side as it continued on its southbound patrol.

As the CNSA indicated in a press statement that was released along with the images:

“The picture shows the full view of the parachute and the complete back after aerodynamic ablation. Cover structure, the attitude control engine diversion hole on the back cover is clearly identifiable, the rover is about 30 meters away from the back cover and about 350 meters away from the landing site during imaging.”

The second and third images (black and white) were taken by the front and rear obstacle avoidance cameras as the rover made its approach and departure from the back cover and chute. The fourth image shows the parachute after it was deployed during the lander’s descent over Utopia Planitia (where it landed) on May 15th. Yet another image was released by the CNSA the following day, which shows Tianwen-1’s landing site.

This image was taken by the orbiter element of the mission on June 2nd, days after the lander and rover element safely landed. The locations of the lander, the rover, the parachute, and back cover, and the heat shield are all indicated in white. The two white dots at the top right corner are the lander and rover, the parachute and back cover are almost directly beneath it (the elongated white mark being the chute) while the heat shield is at the bottom right.

The Tianwen-1 mission was quite the feather in the cap of the CNSA, and not just because it was China’s first mission to Mars. By successfully deploying this mission, China became the first nation to reach Mars with a mission that included an orbiter, lander, and rover element. Prior to this, every space agency that successfully sent a robotic mission to Mars began with orbiters, followed by surface missions – landers first, then landers with rovers.

On top of that, the Zhurong rover makes China the second nation in the world (after the US) to land and operate a rover on the Martian surface. This will be followed in the near future by the Rosalind Franklin rover (part of the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars program) which will launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome sometime this September and is expected to arrive at Mars on June 10th, 2023.

These missions will help pave the way for human exploration, which China is now hoping to do (alongside NASA) during the 2030s. Much like all the crewed lunar missions planned for the near future, the human exploration of Mars is expected to be a multinational affair!

Further Reading: Xinhuanet, CNSA