May 28, 2023

Four days after a spacecraft landed on Mars, the Chinese space agency released its first photos of the red planet on Wednesday and announced that the mission would go as planned.

The four days of waiting for the images – one in color, one in black and white and two small video clips – had led to speculation that something might have gone wrong on Saturday’s landing. When China’s space agency issued a statement on these concerns Tuesday, urging patience, the online response was stinging.

“Can’t you learn from NASA’s propaganda?” One user wrote beneath the statement and appeared to blame the agency by comparing it to NASA’s live broadcasts of their last mission to Mars, which began in February.

After decades of exploring Mars, NASA has a flotilla of spacecraft in orbit around the planet to relay data from their rovers Perseverance and Curiosity, which are cruising on the surface. The Chinese have no existing spacecraft infrastructure on Mars to use.

The Tianwen-1 mission consists of an orbiter, lander and rover, which launched in July and arrived on Mars in February. However, the orbit that enabled Tianwen-1 to release the lander and rover last week was not ideal for feeding large amounts of data, such as images and videos, back to Earth.

On Monday, the orbiter fired its engines and now orbits Mars every eight hours instead of two days. This allows for more frequent and faster communication with the rover, named Zhurong after a mythical Chinese fire god.

The photos were the first public evidence that China’s lander had successfully reached the surface.

The landing made China only the third nation to land safely on Mars after the United States and very shortly after the Soviet Union. It was the latest in a number of key milestones, including missions to the moon and the start of construction of a new orbiting space station, that have secured China’s status as a space power. (China should launch a second module for the space station later on Wednesday or Thursday.)

Since the landing craft reached the surface on Saturday, the Chinese space agency had revealed little about the progress of the Mars mission. On Wednesday it was said that the components of the lander and the rover, including its solar panels, had “been used normally”.

The black and white photo shows the ramp that takes the rover from the lander to the surface, casting a sharp shadow on the surface. (The horizon arc is an effect of the wide angle lens.)

The other colored image shows the rear of the rover and indicates that the solar panels that power the vehicle have successfully deployed. In the background you can see the red rocks and the soil of Utopia Planitia, the impact basin in which NASA’s Viking 2 probe landed in 1976.

The Chinese agency also released two short videos of the lander leaving the orbiter that took the vehicle to Mars.

Zhurong has a number of instruments to study the topography, geology, and atmosphere of the planet. One goal is to understand the distribution of ice in the region, which in theory could one day help keep people visiting. It is expected to leave the lander in a few days.

Claire Fu contributed to the research and Kenneth Chang contributed to the reporting.