July 23, 2021

NASA spacecraft spots Chinese rover on Martian surface


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The HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this aerial view of China’s Tianwen 1 lander and Zhurong rover June 6. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The sharp-eyed camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted China’s Zhurong rover on the Red Planet, showing the craft next to its landing platform, with pieces of its heat shield and parachute nearby.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, instrument on the NASA orbiter is the largest telescopic instrument ever flown to another planet. The camera has captured views of NASA’s rovers and landers on Mars, but the images of the Zhurong rover is the first time HiRISE has seen an intact Mars lander from another country.

Flying in orbit averaging around 186 miles, or 300 kilometers, above the planet, MRO’s HiRISE camera acquired its first image of the Chinese rover June 6.

“Clearly visible are what we interpret as the lander surrounded by a blast pattern, and the rover itself a bit to the south after it descended from the lander,” the HiRISE science team wrote.

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

The HiRISE instrument was built by Ball Aerospace and is managed by a team at the University of Arizona. The camera’s telescope measures about 19.6 inches (50 centimeters) in diameter. From the orbiter’s altitude, the HiRISE camera produces images with a pixel size of about 12 inches (30 centimeters).

The Zhurong rover landed May 14 in southern Utopia Planitia, a broad plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars, making China the second nation to successfully land and operate a spacecraft on the Red Planet.

Designed for a three-month mission, the six-wheel robot drove down a ramp from its stationary landing platform May 21 (U.S. time) to begin exploring the Martian surface.

Zhurong traveled to Mars as part of China’s Tianwen 1 mission, the country’s first robotic interplanetary probe. Tianwen 1 launched from China last July on a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket and entered orbit around Mars in February, before releasing the entry, descent, and landing craft last month.

MRO’s HiRISE camera imaged the Zhurong rover just south of its lander. Part of the lander’s aeroshell and parachute are visible farther to the south in the image below.

The HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this view of China’s Zhurong rover and lander (upper right) and the mission’s backshell and parachute (lower left). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The rover weighs about a quarter-ton, as measured in Earth’s gravity, and stands about 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall. The Chinese craft is slightly larger than NASA’s defunct Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004. Zhurong is significantly smaller than NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers currently driving across the surface of Mars.

MRO’s HiRISE instrument has captured views of the NASA rovers on Mars, and taken perfectly-timed pictures of U.S. spacecraft descending to the Red Planet’s surface under parachutes.

In addition to three-dimensional cameras and a subsurface radar to search for underground water ice, the Zhurong rover carries sensors to measure the composition of Martian rocks, a magnetic field monitor, and a weather station to collect atmospheric data at the Utopia Planitia location.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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