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We’ll have to wait a bit longer for China’s Mars photos

Published May 18th, 2021 11:35PM EDT
china mars rover

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It’s been a few days now since China announced that it had successfully landed its first Mars rover. The robot and its lander had been orbiting the planet since February in preparation for the landing, and now that it’s on the ground, China’s scientists have roughly three months with which to work with the rover, assuming it lives as long as it’s designed to. However, the rover isn’t, well, roving quite yet. As is often the case when sending hardware into space, a period of testing and diagnostics has to be passed before the robot can actually begin using its instruments and sending back scientific data.

For casual science observers, the most exciting part about a new rover on Mars means new photos from the surface of the Red Planet. Unfortunately, unlike NASA’s rapid turnaround between landing Perseverance and publishing new photos, China won’t be gathering images immediately. China’s state-run media revealed that the country’s space agency plans to run its post-landing checks and may finally get around to sending photos back to Earth sometime around the end of May, which is still nearly two weeks away.

The delay between when China landed its rover and when it’ll eventually receive and share photos taken from Mars might seem like a huge departure from what we’re used to seeing from the likes of NASA, but that makes sense. The Zhurong rover is China’s first Mars rover, and it works as part of a team, along with the lander and orbiter that joined it on its journey to Mars.

Relaying photos, which are a lot “heavier,” in terms of data, than numbers are, can take a while, especially when you’re sending them from one planet to another. This is China’s first attempt at sending rover images back to Earth, and while the country’s space agency will certainly learn a lot from this mission, it’s going to take some time.

Despite the delay (if you can even call it that) with the return of photos from Mars, China is extremely happy with how its Mars mission is progressing, and it should be. The country successfully sent a trio of machines to Mars, entered orbit, ran some observations, deployed a lander, and successfully landed on Mars. The rover will soon be deployed and at that point, the science team will be able to begin collecting information on the surface material, rocks, and other interesting features of the landing zone.

The rover is designed to last for roughly three months. It’s possible that it will live a lot longer than that, as NASA’s Mars rovers have done in the past, but there are no guarantees. No matter what happens, China is clearly well-positioned to challenge the rest of the world in space exploration.