China landed the Zhurong rover on the Red Planet on May 14, becoming only the second country after the United States to successfully soft-land on Mars. Zhurong is named for the "god of fire," a figure associated with Mars, which the Chinese call Huoxing, the planet of fire. In Western culture Mars was the Roman god of war, its red color symbolic of blood and battle.
After carefully wheeling down its landing platform on May 22nd, the rover has been busy testing its instruments, surveying its surroundings and taking one of the coolest photos yet from another planet — a recently released selfie with the lander.
Zhurong placed a camera on the ground about 33 feet (10 meters) from the lander, then positioned itself next to the landing platform. The tiny Wi-Fi equipped digital camera. snapped the photo, transmitted it to the rover, which then sent it to the orbiting Tianwen 1 orbiter and from there to Earth. The twin machines look almost human, posed like robotic buddies from a Disney animation.
China's Mars site looks predictably barren but less rocky and more wide open than the more rugged terrain the U.S. rovers Curiosity and Perseverance are currently exploring. One of Zhurong's main goals will be to map subsurface water ice and look for evidence of water erosion in surface rocks. The rover will also cache rock and soil samples for later pickup and delivery to Earth during a proposed sample-return mission in the 2030s.
In a nod to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Beijing Winter Paralympics, the lander sports both their mascots , a panda named Bing Dwen Dwen, and Shuey Rhon Rhon, an anthropomorphic character based on a lantern, a symbol of celebration and warmth. Check out this video to see more symbolic gestures as well as "hidden" Easter eggs from the Martian surface.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped its own photos of the lander and rover from orbit 186 miles above the planet. You can clearly see both pieces of hardware surrounded by the blast pattern created by the single engine that slowed the lander's descent.
My favorite mission images are those incorporated into an interactive panorama that you can control with your mouse. In the video above, you can either navigate the scene using the arrow pad in the upper left of the frame or simply hold down your mouse button down and drag the view around in any direction you like — up, down or sideways left and right. For maximum realism, click the full-screen icon at the lower right in the video.
The China National Space Agency (CNSA) doesn't release a torrent of images the way NASA does, but to keep up with the latest news and photos, drop by Zhurong's Twitter page when you get a chance.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.