Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

The nearest hill to China’s Zhurong

Pitted cone near Zhurong
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today released a pair of images the camera took on June 28, 2021 of the nearest pitted cone to China’s Zhurong rover.

The stereo anaglyph to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, allows you, with blue-red 3D glasses, to see the cone in three dimensions. Quite impressive. As noted by Alfred McEwen of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory in Arizona in his caption,

This image completed a stereo pair of a region just west of where the Zhurong rover landed in southern Utopia Planitia.

The cutout is from a portion of the stereo anaglyph, showing an enigmatic pitted cone. Is this cone composed of sediments or volcanic materials? The sharp bright features surrounding the cone are aeolian (wind-blown) landforms.

According to McEwan, the hill itself is about 200 to 220 feet high, with the pit at its top about 60-65 feet deep.

While McEwan has told me this cone would be his primary target if he was running Zhurong, it appears the Chinese are instead heading south toward the largest nearby crater, and on the way inspecting the parachute, fairing, and heat shield discarded just prior to landing.

The mosaic below from three MRO context camera images provides a wider overview.

Mosaic of MRO context images showing Zhurong landing region
Click here, here, and here for full images.

This wide orbital image to the right, taken from my June 11th post, shows both the pitted cone to the north of the red cross where Zhurong landed, and the crater to the south. The crater is only slightly closer. The white box is a section highlighted in a cool image from June 7th. The red box marks an area covered by one of only two orbital images released by China from its Tianwen-1 orbiter.

Which is a better geological feature to study? The origins of these pitted cones, which are many in Utopia Basin where Zhurong landed, is unknown. They appear to be some form of volcano, but were they formed from molton lava or mud or ice?

The crater however will have caused material from the interior to be ejected to the surface, which will allow Zhurong to get a taste of that interior. And since Zhurong’s primary mission appears to be to study that interior, including ground-penetrating radar to look for underground ice, the crater makes sense as a primary target.

The rover only has about three more weeks left in its nominal three month mission. However, if all is working right that mission will certainly be extended for as long as possible. Thus, all these targets, plus others, might be reached eventually.


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  • The pitted cones are almost certainly not volcanic in my opinion… either mud volcanoes or possibly (also doubtful) pingos. It would be criminal if they don’t send the rover to investigate it.

  • Bill Farrand: I strongly suspect this MRO image was taken in the hope it would encourage the Chinese in this exact direction.

    I think that, based on the distance the rover traveled in one month (more than a thousand feet), and based also on how well it appears to be functioning, I honestly think they are going to try to go both to the crater, and then head north along that ridgeline and eventually reach the cone. I am guessing, but that looks like a reasonable plan.

  • Col Beausabre

    “with blue-red 3D glasses”

    These are available for a modest price on line if you do a search for “3-D glasses”

  • Greg the Geologist

    Glad I keep my 3D glasses in my desk drawer! Thanks – I’d been hoping for stereopair or similar image formats. Can really bring out detail otherwise missed.

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