China’s Zhurong Mars rover takes its first photos from the surface

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The rover (left) and its landing platform (right)

China National Space Administration

The first images from China’s Zhurong Mars rover show a successful landing on the surface of the Red Planet. Photos released today show the landing platform and departure ramp for the rover, as well as solar panels and antenna. The rover is now carrying out final preparations before leaving the landing platform and beginning its mission.

Zhurong is China’s first Mars rover and had been orbiting the planet aboard the Tianwen-1 spacecraft since February, before touching down on 14 May. The successful landing of the rover makes it the third country to reach the surface of the planet, following the US and the Soviet Union.

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Tianwen-1 is China’s first successful interplanetary mission and the first it has attempted solo. A previous collaboration with Russia didn’t make it out of Earth’s orbit due to a rocket failure in 2011.

Over the past few months, Tianwen-1 has been taking pictures of Zhurong’s landing site in Utopia Planitia to make sure conditions there are safe. This is the same enormous impact basin where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976. Tianwen-1 has now entered a new orbit, establishing a stable communication link with the Mars rover to send back images.

The rover itself sits inside a lander that protected it as it fell towards Mars’s surface, slowing down with the help of a heat shield, parachutes and a set of small thrusters. The lander has now extended a ramp and Zhurong will soon roll out. Photographs show that the terrain ahead is clear.

Zhurong is about 1.8 metres tall and weighs 240 kilograms, slightly larger than NASA’s now-defunct Spirit and Opportunity rovers but much smaller than Curiosity and Perseverance, which landed earlier this year. It is powered by solar panels, which are expected to keep it moving for 90 Martian days.

The rover is designed to study Mars’s geological structure, the composition of its surface and underlying layers of rock and ice, its magnetic field and its climate. To accomplish this, Zhurong is equipped with cameras, ground-penetrating radar, a magnetic field detector, a weather station and an instrument to measure the chemical composition of the dust and rocks. The Tianwen-1 orbiter has its own set of instruments to study Mars from orbit, in addition to relaying data from the rover back to Earth.

Tianwen-1 and Zhurong are also meant as a technology demonstration, setting the stage for a planned mission in the 2030s to bring back samples from Mars.

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