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China releases photos of its Mars rover on surface of the red planet

The Zhurong rover, named after a god of fire in Chinese mythology, landed on the Utopia Planitia region of Mars on May 15. This is China’s first Mars mission — making it only the second country to land a rover on the planet, after the United States.

The rover sent back its first images of Mars in May, several days after landing, showing a deployed ramp and the flat landscape where it arrived.
The new photos this Friday included a 360-degree panorama of the landing area, stitched together from a number of images the rover took after landing before it began driving through the area, according to state-run news agency Xinhua. Another image showed the orange Martian surface, with scattered rocks, a circular crater on the far side, and dunes in the distance.

A third image shows the Chinese flag near the landing platform. The rover also took a selfie using a wireless camera, showing its extended solar panels and a tiny Chinese flag emblazoned on its equipment.

The six-wheel solar-powered rover is intended to last three months, during which it will search for signs or evidence of ancient life on Mars’ surface. While the rover explores the planet, its orbiter is also conducting scientific detection operations.

“China will publish the related scientific data in a timely manner to let humankind share in the fruits of the country’s space exploration development,” said Zhang Kejian, head of China’s national space agency, in the Xinhua report.

China’s Mars mission succeeded in entering the planet’s orbit and landing a rover that could traverse the Martian surface in one go. It took NASA multiple missions to complete those challenging steps, albeit decades before China, between 1971 and 1997.

China launched its Tianwen-1 probe, carrying Zhurong and other equipment, last July along with two other international Mars missions: NASA’s Perseverance rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe.

All three missions launched around the same time due to an alignment between Mars and the Earth on the same side of the sun, making for a more efficient journey to the red planet.

While Zhurong is not as technologically advanced as NASA’s Perseverance, which is also currently roving Mars, its presence sends a clear signal that China’s space capabilities are catching up with those of the US.

Chinese astronauts have long been excluded from the International Space Station — and one of the country’s ambitions is to build its own space station. In April, it took a step closer to that goal, successfully launching the first module of the planned facility.

The core module is currently the largest spacecraft developed by China. But the station will need to be assembled from several modules launching at different times; the station could be fully operational by the end of 2022, according to Chinese state media.

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