At this moment we do not have confirmation that China’s rover Zhurong landed safely on Mars. Assuming it did, the mosaic to the right, made from two images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) context camera, shows that landing zone, with the white cross indicating the centerpoint of the suspected landing site, as leaked to the Chinese press back in October 2020.
The red boxes are the only two images released by China that were taken by its Tianwen-1 orbiter of this landing zone. The two white boxes show the areas covered by two of the seven or so photographs taken by MRO’s high resolution camera since that location was revealed. Below is a map showing all the images MRO has taken of this location.
Click for full image.
The cross notes the centerpoint of the suspected landing zone. The red boxes mark all the photos taken by MRO’s high resolution camera. The science team clearly has been trying to get full coverage of this spot so they can make a before and after comparison.
The second picture below shows the area centered around the #1 in mosaic above, taken by MRO on January 15, 2021.. As you can see, there are some craters in this relatively flat area. If you look at the full image you will see a number of other craters as well. You can also see a distinct rough region just to the south of this picture and covered by Tianwen-1’s image.
If Zhurong’s lander landed on any of this rough terrain it could have landed badly.
It is also possible that China has picked a slightly different location than this, and simply hasn’t told us. If so, none of the MRO high resolution images might find Zhurong. The lander could have come down a few miles to the east, west, north, or south, completely out of the area the MRO science team has been trying to cover.
If so, without further information from Chinese officials about the actual landing site, it could take months, even years, to find it, especially if it has crashed.
For the sake of science, and to enhance and not denigrate China’s image to the world, it behooves them to tell us soon everything they know about the state of their Mars rover. The longer they delay the worse they will look. As I wrote earlier today,
Despite more than 48 hours having passed since China announced the successful landing of its Zhurong rover on Mars in the northern lowland plain of Utopia Planitia, no images or data of any kind has been released by that nation or its space agency.
It is very possible that this is totally expected, since they have always said they will need about a week of checkouts before they rollled the rover off the lander and begin its operations.
At the same time, China has been very very creative with providing early images for all its planetary missions. For example, within hours of landing they had released images from their Chang’e-5 lunar sample return lander. Similarly, only hours after Chang’e-4 landed on the far side of the Moon with its Yutu-2 rover China released images.
They did the exact same thing when Chang’e-3 landed in 2013 with its Yutu-1 rover.
I can’t imagine they don’t have some cameras on the Mars lander to snap pictures of the horizon or the ground directly below. They might not, but if so the lack would be truly astonishing.
It is also possible China is holding the data close for any number of political reasons, though this doesn’t make much sense since the whole political point of these planetary missions is to sell China to the world.
The more time that passes with no confirmation data, the more it will appear that something is wrong. If this conclusion is incorrect, China needs to act now to dispel these doubts.