China’s Mars rover returns first images — scientists say the view is promising

Nature | May 20, 2021

View from the Zhurong Mars rover of its landing platform and departure ramp
An image taken to the front of Zhurong, shows the ramp down from its lander deployed, ready for it to roll off and explore an invitingly flat plain.Credit: China National Space Administration

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has revealed the first images from Mars taken by its Zhurong rover, which arrived on the planet’s surface on Saturday. Scientists say that the shots — which show the rover with its solar panels unfurled and the ramp from its lander deployed — hint that it has arrived at a safe, ideal site from which it can begin exploring.

“The first images show, first and foremost, a terrain that will be easy to drive over,” says Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

He and other space scientists are thrilled to see that the site appears to be flat and largely free of obstructions, such as craters, rocks and boulders. From there, the craft potentially will travel relatively long distances to features of interest seen in satellite imagery.

“We are very excited. But we are still waiting for more images with high resolution to come,” says Yuyan Zhao, a planetary geochemist at the Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Guiyang.

Moments from Mars

On 19 May, four days after Zhurong’s arrival, the CNSA released two images snapped by cameras on the rover.

It also released two brief video clips, which captured the moment — more than 100 kilometres above the red planet’s surface — that the Tianwen-1 orbiter released the rover and lander, encased in a heat shield, ready to begin their descent through the Martian atmosphere.

Animated sequence of the Lander separation from orbiter.

The capsule containing the lander and rover detaches from the Tianwen-1 spacecraft.Credit: China National Space Administration

Animated sequence of the Lander separation from orbiter.

A second clip of Zhurong departing the orbiter en route to the Martian surface.Credit: China National Space Administration

A black-and-white image (shown at the top of this page), taken from a forward-facing obstacle-avoidance camera with a wide-angle lens, shows a ramp descending from the landing platform, which Zhurong will probably roll off of within days. The two protruding rods at the top of the image are the rover’s subsurface radar instrument, which it will use to study geological structures below the surface.

A second image, in colour (below), showing the view taken from a navigation camera pointing towards the rear of the rover, reveals a deployed antenna and solar panels in the shape of butterfly wings. Red Martian soil and dust cover the ground.

Scientifically exciting images

The photographs are “clearly world-class quality and very exciting scientifically”, says Joseph Michalski, a planetary scientist at the University of Hong Kong. Researchers “will need a little time to dig into the details”, he adds. “But the images are enticing and encouraging.”

The flat landscape that can be seen is especially promising, scientists say, because it means Zhurong could reach features of geological interest that are several kilometres away. One land form of particular interest is a cone-shaped feature seen in aerial images, possibly mud volcano, to the northeast.

China's Zhurong Mars rover on Mars

A colour image captures the view to Zhurong’s rear, revealing its unfurled solar panels.Credit: China National Space Administration

McEwen thinks that maybe Zhurong “can reach that pitted cone in 90 days”, which is the length of the rover’s initial mission goal. The small rocks seen in the new images have diverse shapes, which seem to reflect light differently, which might be consistent with mud flows from a volcano, he says. “But that is still very speculative.”

Elena Favaro, a planetary geomorphologist at The Open University, in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom, says that two bright patches in the top right of the black-and-white image could be ‘transverse aeolian ridges’, which are ripple-like structures of windblown deposits. It isn’t clear how far away they are, but she hopes Zhurong will head towards them to determine their make-up.

ZHURONG. Graphic highlighting equipment carried by the Chinese rover to survey the geological structures on Mars.

Zhurong’s mission is expected to last three months, but it could survive longer and tally up a considerable distance, as other solar-powered rovers have.

NASA’s Opportunity broke the record by travelling more than 45 kilometres over 15 years, until a massive dust storm cloaked its solar panels. The Chinese team hoped to guard against that fate by fitting Zhurong’s solar panels with a vibrating function to shake off dust that builds up.


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