China’s Zhurong rover has beamed back its first images from the surface of Mars after landing on a vast plain called Utopia Planitia. The rover plunged through the Martian atmosphere last Friday, bundled together with a lander after separating from China’s Tianwen-1 probe.
The new images released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) show the two robots meticulously executing their first post-landing steps: the lander extended a tiny ramp to help Zhurong put its six wheels on the Martian surface for the first time. And Zhurong unfolded its four wing-like solar panels and a communications antenna, as seen from one of the rover’s navigation cameras.
The Tianwen-1 mission, which arrived in Martian orbit in February, is China’s first trek to Mars. Until last week, only the US had been able to successfully land and operate rovers on the Red Planet. NASA’s most recent rover, Perseverance, landed in February at Jezero Crater, a little over a thousand miles from China’s landing site at Utopia Planitia. (NASA’s Viking-2 mission also landed at Utopia Planitia in 1976.)
Surviving the dive through Mars’ atmosphere — the “seven minutes of terror” — is the hardest part of any voyage to the planet. CNSA also released images of the landing phase in action:
Tianwen-1 launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in China’s Hainan province on July 23rd last year, setting off on its seven-month trek to the Red Planet. Now, with Zhurong preparing to rove Utopia Planitia, China has its first robotic laboratory on Mars. The rover’s instruments will work to study the planet’s geology and climate during its planned 90-day mission.