New images of Mars from the Chinese rover

May 14e, 2021, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) took another important step when the Tianwen-1 The lander successfully landed on Mars, making China the second nation in the world to land a mission on Mars and establish communications from the surface. Soon after, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) shared the first images taken by the Tianwen-1 lander.

Before May 22sd, 2021, the Zhurong rover descended from its lander and rolled over the Martian surface for the first time. Since then, the rover has spent 63 Earth days conducting scientific operations on the surface of Mars and has traveled more than 450 meters (1,475 feet). At Friday July 9, and still on July 15th, CNSA released new images of the red planet that were taken by the rover as it crossed the surface.

Since the rover deployed to the surface of Mars, it has traveled south to explore and inspect the terrain, and has taken daily images of rocks, sand dunes and other items using its navigation and surveying cameras (NaTeCam). Meanwhile, other instruments – like the Mars Rover Penetrating Radar (RoPeR), Mars Rover Magnetometer (RoMAG), Mars Climate Station (MCS) – also collected data on magnetic field, weather and sub -sol of Mars.

Whenever the rover encountered notable landforms, it relied on its Mars Surface Compound Detector (MarSCoDe) and multispectral camera (MSCam) to perform fixed-point scans to determine their composition. New images include the two Martian rocks above (courtesy of CNSA via Xinhuanet) which revealed the characteristics of the rocks’ texture, the thick layers of dust covering them and the imprints left by the ruts of the rover.

Other images (below, also from CNSA via Xinhuanet) include a landscape photo taken by Zhurong on June 26e, the rover 42sd day on the Martian surface (Sol 42). That day, the rover arrived in a sandy area and took images of a red dune about 6 meters (~ 20 feet) away. As you can see (top gallery image), the dune is dotted with several boulders, the one directly in front of Zhurong measuring 34 cm (13.4 inches) wide.

The following image (bottom left) was taken on July 4the, Zhurong is 50 years olde day on the Martian surface (Sol 50), after the rover traveled to the south side of the dune – which is 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 210 m (690 ft) from its landing site and 130 m (~ 425 ft) from the back cover and the landing gear parachute.

These components were part of the entry, descent and landing (EDL) module of the Tianwen-1 mission. While the back cover allowed the rover and lander to safely traverse deep space and survive the turbulent passage through Mars’ atmosphere, the parachute was what allowed their controlled descent into the atmosphere in order to that they can make a soft landing.

These components are just visible in the upper right corner of the top image while a cluster of stones of different shapes is visible on the left. More recent images acquired by the rover were released on July 15.e, 2021, which showed the rover taking a closer look at the rear cowl and parachute (see below). The first image (top left) was acquired three days earlier and shows these two components on the left side of the rover as it continued its patrol in a southerly direction.

As the CNSA stated in a Press statement which was released with the pictures:

“The photo shows the full view of the parachute and the full back after the aerodynamic ablation. Cover structure, the attitude control motor deflection hole on the back cover is clearly identifiable, the rover is about 30 meters from the back cover and about 350 meters 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 approached and moved away from the rear cover and chute. The fourth image shows the parachute after its deployment during the landing gear’s descent over Utopia Planitia (where it landed) on May 15.e. Again another image was released by CNSA the next day, which shows the Tianwen-1 landing site.

This image was taken by the mission’s orbiter element on June 2sd, a few days after the landing gear and rover component safely landed. The lander, rover, parachute, rear cover, and heat shield locations are all shown in white. The two white dots in the upper right corner are the lander and the rover, the parachute and the rear cover are almost directly below (the elongated white mark being the chute) while the heat shield is on the lower right.

The Tianwen-1 mission was quite the feather in the CNSA’s hat, 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. Before that, every space agency that has successfully sent a robotic mission to Mars started with orbiters, followed by surface missions – first landers, then landers with rovers.

On top of that, the Zhurong rover makes China the second nation in the world (after the United States) to land and operate a rover on the Martian surface. It will be followed in the near future by the Rosalind Franklin rover (which is part of the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars program) which will be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in September and should arrive on Mars on June 10e, 2023.

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

Further reading: Xinhuanet, CNSA