China became only the second country to operate a rover on Mars last month when the six-wheeled Zhurong robot rolled down the ramp onto the red planet. Now, the rover has beamed back the first images taken as it rolls around the surface. One of the new pics is a selfie, showing both the rover and the landing platform. However, it doesn’t use the same trick as NASA’s Mars rovers to snap selfies.
Zhurong landed on May 15th, but operators back on Earth took their time getting the robot down its ramp to ensure all systems were working correctly. After descending, Zhurong traveled about 10 meters from the lander to drop off a remote camera. That’s how the team got a snapshot of both the lander and rover on June 6th. NASA has released numerous selfies of the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, neither of which have a remote camera system. Yet, the photos often include the entire robot. NASA does this by using the robotic arm to snap multiple photos, and then stitches them together and crops out the arm. Zhurong doesn’t have an arm, so the detachable camera does the job.
In addition to the remote snapshot, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) released a few black and white images at a lower resolution from the navigation cameras, a picture of the lander taken by Zhurong, and a panorama of the Utopia Planitia landing site. So far, the robot has covered about 22 meters on Mars, and all its systems are working as intended.
While NASA is not directly working with the CNSA on the Zhurong mission, it did take time to take some images of the robot’s landing zone with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). From its vantage high above the planet’s surface, MRO was able to get a surprisingly sharp image of the lander and rover sitting nearby. Still, scientists working on MRO hope that the Chinese team will see something of interest they might want to investigate. For example, there’s a crater to the east of the robot, along with a small boulder that might have been ejected by the impact. Fifty meters to the south, the NASA image shows some bright dunes that could be worth exploring.
Zhurong uses a solar panel array to power its operations, a risky proposition on a planet with frequent dust storms. NASA recently had to get creative to clean sand off of the InSight lander’s panels. Curiosity and Perseverance don’t have this issue — they have nuclear power sources. The CNSA hopes to get about 90 days of use out of the solar-powered robot, but it could go much longer. NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers aren’t much different, and the latter lasted 15 years on Mars.