New photos of Mars from China’s rover

May 2021, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) reached another major milestone when the Tianwen-1 lander successfully landed on Mars. This makes China the second nation in the world to land a mission on Mars and communicate from the surface. Shortly afterwards, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) announced the first images of the Tianwen-1 lander.

May 2021, the Zhurong rover dismounted from its lander and drove on the surface of Mars for the first time. Since then, the rover has spent 63 Earth days conducting scientific operations on the surface of Mars, traveling over 450 meters (1,475 feet). On Friday, July 9th, and again on July 15th, the CNSA released new images of the red planet that the rover had taken on its way over the surface.

Since the rover was stationed on the surface of Mars, it has been traveling south to scout and inspect the terrain, and has taken daily pictures of rocks, sand dunes and other features with its navigation and topography cameras (NaTeCam). In the meantime, other instruments – such as the Mars Rover Penetrating Radar (RoPeR), the Mars Rover Magnetometer (RoMAG), the Mars Climate Station (MCS) – collect data on the magnetic field, the weather and the subsurface of Mars.

Whenever the rover encountered remarkable landforms, it relied on its Mars Surface Compound Detector (MarSCoDe) and multispectral camera (MSCam) to perform fixed point scans to determine their composition. Among the new images are the two Martian rocks shown above (courtesy CNSA via Xinhuanet) which showed the textural features of the rocks, the thick layers of dust covering them, and the impressions of the rover’s ruts.

Other images (see below, also from CNSA via Xinhuanet) include a landscape image taken by Zhurong on June 26, the 42nd day of the rover on the Martian surface (Sol 42). That day the rover arrived in a sandy area and took pictures of a red dune about 6 meters away. As you can see (upper gallery picture), the dune is surrounded by several rocks, of which the one directly in front of Zhurong is 34 cm (13.4 in) 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 is 40 m long and 8 m² (26.25 ft ) wide and 0.6 m (2 ft) high. 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 rear cover and parachute of the lander.

These components were part of the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) module of the Tianwen-1 mission. While the rear cover ensured that the rover and lander made it safely through space and survived the turbulent ride through the Martian atmosphere, the parachute enabled their controlled descent through the atmosphere so they could make a soft landing.

These components are only visible in the upper right corner of the upper image, while on the left there is a collection of stones of various shapes. More recent images of the rover were released on July 15, 2021 showing how the rover examined the rear cover and parachute in more detail (see below). The first image (top left) was taken three days earlier and shows these two components on the left side of the rover as it continued its patrol south.

As the CNSA stated in a press release published along with the images:

“The picture shows the full view of the parachute and the entire back after aerodynamic ablation. Cover structure, the deflection hole of the attitude control engine on the rear cover is clearly visible, the rover is about 30 meters from the rear cover and about 350 meters from the landing site during the recording. “

The second and third images (black and white) were captured by the front and rear obstacle avoidance cameras as the rover approached and exited the rear cover and slide. The fourth image shows the parachute after it was deployed on the descent of the lander over Utopia Planitia (where it landed) on May 15. The following day, the CNSA released another picture showing the Tianwen-1 landing site.

This image was captured by the mission’s orbiter element on June 2, days after the lander and rover element landed safely. The locations of the lander, rover, parachute and back cover and heat shield are all shown in white. The two white dots in the upper right corner are the lander and rover, the parachute and back cover are almost directly below (the elongated white mark is the parachute) while the heat shield is in the lower right.

The Tianwen-1 mission was a real eye-catcher for 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 in a mission that included an orbiter, lander, and rover element. Previously, any space agency that successfully sent a robotic mission to Mars began with orbiters, followed by surface missions – first lander, then lander with rover.

In addition, the Zhurong rover makes China the second nation in the world (after the US) to land and operate a rover on the surface of Mars. In the near future, the Rover Rosalind Franklin (part of the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars program) will follow, which will take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome sometime in September and is expected to arrive on Mars on June 10, 2023.

These missions will help pave the way for the human exploration that China now plans to undertake (along with NASA) in the 2030s. Similar to all manned lunar missions planned for the near future, human exploration of Mars is expected to become a multinational proposition!

Further reading: Xinhuanet, CNSA

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