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Zhurong of the Tianwen-1 mission drives down the ramp of the lander onto the surface of Mars, in this screenshot taken from a video released by China National Space Administration (CNSA) May 22, 2021

Planetary Society Map of Mars landing missions
All images to date and a brief animation

China’s first Mars rover rolled onto the Red Planet’s surface late Friday (May 21) to begin exploring its new base: the vast Martian plain called Utopia Planitia – believed to be the site of an ancient ocean.

Solar panels and an antenna

The rover is called Zhurong, named after a mythical Chinese fire god. Zhurong landed on Mars a week earlier on May 14, drove on to the Martian surface from its landing platform at 10:40 p.m. EDT on Friday (10:40 a.m. Saturday, May 22 Beijing Time). It is expected to spend the next 90 days mapping the area, searching for signs of water ice, monitoring weather and studying the surface composition. The craft is looking for signs of life.

The mission is called Tianwen-1 and is China’s first independent interplanetary mission. The uncrewed Tianwen-1 spacecraft blasted off from the southern Chinese island of Hainan then entered orbit around the Red Planet in Feb. of 2021. Tianwen-1 reached Mars within days of two other major missions: the United Arab Emirates’ Hope satellite and NASA’s Perseverance rover. (This is thanks to the close alignment of Earth and Mars in 2020)

Photos from Zhurong released by the China National Space Administration show views from the rover’s navigation cameras.

Zhurong is a solar-powered rover designed to last at least 90 Martian days (called sols) on the surface of Mars. It is equipped with high-resolution cameras for photographing and mapping its Utopia Planita home. The rover also carries a subsurface radar to look inside the Martian surface, a multi-spectral camera and surface composition detector, a magnetic field detector and a weather monitor. The radar is to look for subsurface water.

Scientists note ancient mud volcanoes, impact craters, subsurface ice and sand dunes as potential stopping-off points on Zhurong’s itinerary.

China is only the second country after the United States to land a rover on Mars and Zhurong joins two other active rovers, NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance, now exploring different parts of the Red Planet. NASA has also landed three additional previous rovers on Mars, each larger and more ambitious. Sojourner was first in 1997, an interplanetary self-driving vehicle and lab.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft is expected to study Mars for at least a full Martian year, about 687 Earth days.

“This, to me, says China is getting right up there in terms of one of the world’s premier space agencies,” says The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis. Davis also points out that the two countries actually coordinated the trajectories of their respective 2020 launches to ensure they wouldn’t crash into one another.

Color-coded image of Zhurong’s landing site; the image is a composite of ones taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Warmer features, such as rocky surfaces that retain heat at night, appear redder; dusty surfaces, which are cooler, appear blue-green. A conical feature in the top left could be a mud volcano. The rover is in the center.Credit: NASA/ASU

NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson issued the following statement Wednesday:

“Congratulations to the China National Space Administration on receiving the first images from the Zhurong Mars rover!” Nelson said. “As the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the United States and the world look forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet. I look forward to future international discoveries, which will help inform and develop the capabilities needed to land human boots on Mars.”

China’s first attempt on Mars was actually as part of Russia’s 2011 Fobos-Grunt mission to explore Mars and its moon Phobos. That spacecraft failed to leave Earth’s orbit, and China began their own program.

Utopia Planitia is the region where NASA’s Viking 2 spacecraft landed in 1976.
Here’s animation of both the recent Mars landings that shows the NASA and China News Service videos side by side:

The European Space Agency will launch its own Mars rover, the Rosalind Franklin, to Mars in 2022 as part of its ExoMars mission.

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David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.

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