China’s Zhurong rover has been snapped by powerful cameras aboard several spacecraft circling Mars. One of the images — a high resolution colour shot (above) taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) — offers scientists an extremely detailed view of the landing site.
“It’s incredible!” says Peter Grindrod, a planetary scientist at the Natural History Museum in London. The image, taken on 6 June, also reveals Zhurong has made reasonable headway, travelling 22 metres from the lander. “Driving on Mars appears to be going OK,” he says.
The image, snapped by the MRO’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment),, offers the best look so far at hazards and scientific targets on the surface, adds Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and principal investigator for HiRISE’s camera.
Further images in black and white, released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), were taken on 2 June by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft that carried Zhurong to Mars. At lower resolution than NASA’s images, they show the rover’s landing site, both before and after it arrived.
Zhurong landed on 15 May and is nearly one month into its mission. Several weeks ago it drove off a ramp on the lander, and the CNSA confirmed its instruments were operational.
Spotting features of interest
NASA and the CNSA have no agreement of cooperation on this mission, but McEwen says the HiRISE image could be used by Chinese researchers to help plot Zhurong’s route. “Maybe they will see something of interest,” he says.
The HiRISE image shows the lander and rover, in false colour, as green specks in a sea of red dust. A darker patch around the lander is likely a blast pattern created by engine plumes during landing.
Brighter curved features are probably sand dunes known as transverse Aeolian ridges. In a larger version of the image (not pictured) HiRISE also captured the discarded parachute, as well as the remains of the entry capsule.
As predicted from historic shots of the landing site examined after the rover arrived, and images taken by Zhurong itself, the terrain appears smooth, flat and perfect for driving on, says McEwen.
In the CNSA image (above, right) the larger lander and smaller orbiter are visible as two white specks in the darker ink splat of the blast pattern. Bright spots lower down in the image are the capsule, heat shield and a parachute, which helped slow its descent through Mars’s atmosphere. Small craters and bright dunes stud the landscape.
Within Zhurong’s range
Both the CNSA and NASA images reveal features of interest, says Joseph Michalski, a planetary scientist at the University of Hong Kong. To the east of the rover is a small crater and half-metre-sized boulder, likely ejected from another larger crater a few hundred metres to the north.
Some 50 metres south is a large, bright sand dune, of a type that has not been closely studied before, says Xiao Long, a planetary geologist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, who hopes this will be Zhurong’s first stop.
Michalski says that the larger, 200-metre-wide crater to the north, is scattered with rocks ejected by the impact that created it, which could reveal what is present just below the planet’s surface.
And this is likely within the rover’s range, he says. A similar Chinese rover on the Moon, known as Yutu-2, has travelled more than 700 metres in more than two years, offering a sense of what might be possible for Zhurong (see image below).
McEwen says his team soon plans to publish a stereo-pair image, showing two slightly different views of the landing area, which can be combined to reveal the three-dimensional shape of the surface. They also plan to capture features further west of the existing image, including a pitted mound some seven kilometres away that could be a mud volcano.