Images are beginning to trickle out of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) as its Zhurong rover explores its new home on Mars in Utopia Planitia. (The rover’s name means “god of fire” in Chinese mythology, in line with the name Huoxing, or “fire planet,” for ruddy-hued Mars.)
Over the weekend, the mission team released an amazing panorama of the landing site:
The safety of the flat plains of Utopia Planitia was one of the main reasons that the CNSA picked it as a landing site.
Launched atop a Long March 5 rocket on July 23, 2020, from the Wenchang Space Center, China’s all-in-one orbiter, lander, and rover package arrived in orbit around Mars on February 10, 2021. This three-in-one planetary package was an ambitious first for China, or any space agency. Then, on May 14th, the lander touched down on Utopia Planitia, in the same general region where Viking 2 landed in 1976.
The rover rolled down the ramp of the landing platform on May 22nd. Then, early last week, Zhurong placed a small wireless camera on the Martian surface about 33 feet (10 meters) from the landing platform, backed away, and performed another first, snapping a selfie of the rover alongside its landing platform. The result captured the imagination of those on social media (and the hearts of those of us who like to anthropomorphize planetary rovers).
The lander/rover configuration is similar to China’s Chang’e/Yutu lunar missions; solar-powered Zhurong is also reminiscent of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Both Opportunity and Spirit, as well as Curiosity, have managed mosaic selfies before, and the Ingenuity helicopter imaged Perseverance off in the distance while in flight. But this one-shot remote image is a first, and shows the rover in perfect health on Mars.
Meanwhile, China’s Tianwen 1 orbiter and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also captured views of Zhurong and its landing site from orbit:
“The image shows the surrounding terrain to be very typical of southern Utopia Planitia, with a smooth and mostly boulder-free region,” says Alfred McEwen (HiRISE principal investigator) in a recent post. “The bright curving features are aeolian (windblown) land-forms. The lander’s parachute & backshell as well as its heat-shield (separate images on the site) are also visible.”
Zhurong carries a suite of scientific instruments, including a climate and weather station and ground-penetrating radar. Its survey for below-ground ice will serve as “ground truth” for comparison to data gathered by the Tianwen 1 orbiter overhead. Zhurong is intended to operate for 90 sols, though it could well follow in the footsteps of Spirit and Opportunity, which rolled on across Mars for several years past warranty.
China is now the second nation to successfully field a rover on Mars. Zhurong joins Perseverance and Curiosity as an active mission exploring the Red Planet. In the next 2022–2023 window for launches to Mars, the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover intends to be the third agency to field a rover on Mars soil.
It will be interesting to see what Zhurong discovers as it gets down to business.