China releases first pictures from Zhurong rover since Mars landing

China’s Zhurong rover sits atop the Tianwen 1 mission’s landing platform on Mars. Credit: CNSA

China’s space agency released the first pictures from the Zhurong Mars rover Wednesday, showing the six-wheel robot ready to drive down a ramp from its landing platform to begin exploring the Red Planet.

The 529-pound (240-kilogram) Zhurong rover landed Friday, becoming the first Chinese spacecraft to accomplish a soft landing on the Red Planet. With the rover’s successful touchdown, China became the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on Mars, following the United States.

In a statement Wednesday, the China National Space Administration said the images show the rover’s departure ramp, solar panels, antennas, and other mechanisms deployed normally after landing. The imagery also confirms the landscape in front of the rover is clear of hazards.

The color image above was taken by a navigation camera, showing the rear of the Zhurong rover and details about the rust-colored Martian surface in the background.

A black-and-white view showing the landing platform’s ramp comes from the front wide-angle obstacle avoidance camera on the Zhurong rover. The two extension rods in the upper part of the images are subsurface radars, part of the mission’s payload of scientific instruments.

The Zhurong rover separated from the orbiting module of China’s Tianwen 1 Mars mission Friday to begin the descent to the surface of Mars. Another view released by CNSA on Friday shows the lander, cocooned inside a heat shield, separating from the Tianwen 1 orbiter Friday.

China’s space agency said it took several days to get the images from the Zhurong rover back to Earth because the Tianwen 1 orbiter needed to maneuver into a new orbit to relay signals between the Mars lander and Chinese ground controllers.

This image from China’s Zhurong rover shows the ramp the vehicle will drive down to reach the surface of Mars. Credit: CNSA

The Tianwen 1 orbiter established a stable communications link with the Zhurong rover Monday.

“At present, the rover is preparing to leave the landing platform, and will select an opportunity to drive onto the surface of Mars and begin patrolling and exploration,” CNSA said in a statement.

Chinese officials said last week that the Zhurong rover, which stands about 5.9 feet (1.8 meters) tall, could drive off its landing platform Saturday, May 22.

The rover’s successful landing last week kicked off an exploration mission Chinese officials have said will last at least 90 days.

The spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere at an altitude of about 77 miles (125 kilometers) and a speed of nearly 11,000 mph (about 4.8 kilometers per second). A thermal shield outside the rover’s carrier module protected the craft from super-hot temperatures during entry.

The entry capsule initially slowed to about 1,000 mph (460 meters per second) from the friction from Martian air molecules.

The spacecraft deployed a supersonic parachute to continue slowing the lander’s velocity, Chine state media reported. The craft then jettisoned its parachute and heat shield, and used a retro-propulsion system to do the rest of the braking before touchdown on an expansive flat plain named Utopia Planitia in the northern hemisphere.

Chinese state media described the nine-minute entry, descent, and landing as the riskiest part of the Tianwen 1 mission — China’s first interplanetary explorer. Tianwen 1, consisting of an orbiter, lander, and rover, launched from Earth last July on China’s heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket.

The Zhurong rover, enclosed inside a heat shield, separates from the Tianwen 1 orbiter Friday. Credit: CNSA

Tianwen 1 became the first Chinese mission to enter orbit around Mars when it arrived in February, making China the sixth country or space agency to have a probe orbiting the Red Planet, following the United States, the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, India, and the United Arab Emirates.

China jointed an even smaller international club with the Mars landing Friday. Only two nations previously achieved a soft landing on the Red Planet.

The Soviet Union’s Mars 3 lander was the first spacecraft to perform a soft landing on the Martian surface in December 1971, but the probe stopped transmitting about two minutes later.

Nine U.S. missions have successfully landed on Mars since 1976.

In addition to the cameras and a subsurface radar to probe underground water ice, the Zhurong rover carries sensors to measure the composition of Martian rocks, a magnetic field monitor, and a weather station to begin collecting data at the Utopia Planitia location.

The Zhurong rover has six wheels, and sizes up slightly larger than NASA’s defunct Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004. The Chinese craft is significantly smaller than NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers currently driving across the surface of Mars.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated Chinese space officials on the Zhurong rover’s accomplishments Wednesday.

“Congratulations to CNSA on the first images from the Zhurong rover!” Nelson tweeted. “As the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the U.S. and the world looks forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet.”

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, echoed Nelson’s comments.

“I would like to second that congratulations,” Musk tweeted. “Outstanding accomplishment by China!”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.