The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) released the first images from its Zhurong rover on Mars today, Wednesday, May 19, including footage of the Zhurong mission's lander separating from the orbiter in the dramatic moments before touch down.
Last week saw China become the third country, after the US and Russia, to land a rover on Mars when the CNSA oversaw the successful landing of the Zhurong rover on the Utopia Planitia region of the red planet.
The Zhurong rover established a datalink with Earth, via the Tianwen-1 orbiter, on Monday, May 15, at which point it started sending back images, including shots of the rover on the red planet, and footage of the lander separation.
The images constitute the first non-NASA mission pictures taken from the surface of the red planet. According to China's CGTN, a state-affiliated media source, the black and white image was taken by the rover's obstacle-detecting, wide-angle front "eye" camera.
The two metal beams on the top of the image are parts of a radar system, while the rails shown in the image will guide the rover to Mars's soil from the lander. Both of these were initially hidden inside the lander, and the CNSA says their successful unfolding is a good indicator that the whole system is functioning well.
The colored picture, meanwhile, was captured by a navigation camera aimed at the rover's tail, and shows unfolded antennas and solar panels that will help to power the Zhurong rover for the duration of its mission.
Finally, two separate video clips show footage from the Zhurong lander as it separated from the Tianwen-1 orbiter, and made its rapid descent to the Utopia Planitia region of Mars at approximately 7:11 PM EDT on May 15.
The rover traveled to Mars aboard the Tianwen-1 probe, which entered Mars' orbit earlier this year on February 10, and launched from Earth on July 23, 2020, atop a Long March 5 rocket.
90 sols of Mars exploration await China's Mars Zhurong rover
The next milestone for the CNSA will come when the 530-lb (240-kilogram) Zhurong rover moves down the rail and has its Neil Armstrong moment, touching Martian soil for the first time in order to properly commence operations — though there is no official confirmation, IFL Science cites "rumors" that suggest this will occur on May 22.
As The Conversation points out the Zhurong rover nailed its landing on its first attempt, while NASA took decades to land its first craft on the red planet.
Of course, NASA was the first to land a spacecraft on Mars with their Viking 1 landing on June 19, 1976, and the CNSA has undoubtedly benefited from NASA's learnings and expertise as a leader in space exploration — the US space agency recently conducted the first controlled flight on Mars.
The CNSA does still have some way to go before it can announce the Zhurong mission — named after a god of fire in Chinese mythology — a success. For now, the team at CNSA is inspecting the terrain around the six-wheeled rover in order to plan its route.
The Zhurong rover is equipped with a magnetic field detector, cameras, spectrometers, a weather station, and more, all of which will help it achieve its mission goals, which include studying Mars's magnetic field, analyzing the planet's surface composition, and investigating its weather patterns.
A ground-penetrating radar will also allow scientists to image approximately 100 meters (330 feet) below the surface of Mars. The rover is expected to operate for roughly 90 Martian days (sols), or approximately the timespan of 92 days here on Earth.