China’s Mars-orbiting spacecraft has beamed back stunning images of the red planet’s most distinctive features, and they’re just a sample of its new photo library.
The Tianwen-1 orbiter spacecraft has imaged the entire planet of Mars, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said on Weibo on Wednesday. China released a handful of the orbiter’s images from across the Martian surface with the announcement.
Since falling into its orbit there in February 2021, the spacecraft has circled Mars more than 1,300 times, Chinese state media reported. The orbiter brought a rover to Mars as well, dropping it into Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water frozen beneath its surface. The rover, named Zhurong for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, aimed to explore the region and search for its water ice with ground-penetrating radar.
If space agencies like NASA or China National Space Administration someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource. It can both sustain astronauts and be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back, so they would likely need to mine it on Mars.
The Zhurong rover traveled nearly 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) before going into hibernation to save its energy through Mars’s hyper-cold winter, according to state media. The rover is expected to power back up in December, when Martian spring arrives.
This was the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.
Craters were a prominent feature in the images, of course. The below image shows the rim of the ancient Maunder crater, which is about 56 miles (90 kilometers) wide and is partially filled with dust, sand, and other Mars material.
One image captures a stunning view of the Valles Marineris canyon system, which is almost as long as the United States is wide. The canyons there reach up to 4 miles deep. For perspective, the Grand Canyon on Earth is just 1 mile deep.
Both Tianwen-1 robots, on the Martian ground and in its orbit, have completed their scientific missions, state media reported Wednesday. The orbiter has beamed 1,040 gigabytes of raw data back to Earth, which CNSA will eventually release publicly, state media said.
For now, the mission’s findings are not clear.