Since Curiosity arrived on Mars almost a decade ago, we are used to the Martian rovers snapping the occasional selfie through movable arms and clever digital stitching. The situation is different for orbiters surrounding the Red Planet. But the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) has just proven that there’s scope to snap the orbiters as well.
Tianwen-1, the orbiter that successfully brought the Zhurong rover to Mars, and is still orbiting Mars released a small camera device. This snapped an incredible "selfie" of Tianwen-1, using Wi-Fi to send it back to the orbiter, which then forward it to Earth.
The image shows the golden spacecraft with its antennae and solar panels in full view. Behind it, the majesty of the Red Planet with a partial view of the Martian northern ice cap. It's not the first time the orbiter has used a deployable camera to get a picture. It also did that in deep space, on the way to Mars. However, it can’t compare to the latest one given the fantastic background.
The Tianwen-1 mission is a three-in-one mission with a lander and the rover exploring the surface of Mars since last May. Zhurong also used a deployable wireless camera to take adorable photos of itself and the lander. The orbiter portion of Tianwen-1 is designed to study the visible geology of Mars from high above the planet and precisely measure Mars’ weak magnetic field.
In its suit of instruments, there is a high-resolution camera that can snap images where objects about 2 meters (6.6 feet) can be resolved. This may not be as good as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE, but it's still incredible. Tianwen-1 started its orbit further away than the NASA orbiter, getting to 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the ground on its closest approach, but it changed it in November.
Tianwen-1 now gets as close as 256 kilometers (165 miles) and as far as 10,700 kilometers (6,500 miles) in its 7 hours and 5 minutes orbit around the Red Planet. The new celestial path allows the orbiter to start working on its scientific goals as well as continue receiving data from Zhurong, who continues to work well beyond its 90 days expected mission.
The name of the mission, Tianwen, comes from an ancient Chinese poem written by Qu Yuan (~340-278 BCE). It translates as “Questions to the Heavens”, a fitting name for a mission that will provide new insights into Mars and hopefully answer some of the many ongoing mysteries that still remain to be understood.