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NASA Mars orbiter grabs dramatic first view of China's elusive rover

China's historic Tianwen-1 mission lander and rover star in a fresh Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view.

China's Tianwen-1 lander and Zhurong rover (lower dot) are visible in this NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image from June 6.

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

It's a rover-fest on Mars. Curiosity and Perseverance are sharing the planet with China's Zhurong rover, which a NASA spacecraft in orbit around the red planet spotted down on the Martian surface on June 6.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has already captured remarkable views of Curiosity and Perseverance, but this is its first look at Zhurong, part of the the China National Space Administration (CNSA) Tianwen-1 mission. Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter, a lander and the rover.

"Clearly visible are what we interpret as the lander surrounded by a blast pattern, and the rover itself a bit to the south after it descended from the lander," said the MRO HiRise camera team at the University of Arizona in a statement on Thursday.   

Zhurong landed in mid-May, making China only the second country to operate a rover on Mars. The MRO image matches up well with a view from the Tianwen-1 orbiter released by CNSA earlier this week. 

The rover is in a plains region of Mars. "This image shows the surrounding terrain to be very typical of southern Utopia Planitia, with a smooth and mostly boulder-free region," the HiRise team said. "The bright curving features are aeolian (windblown) landforms."

China has released few images from the Tianwen-1 mission overall, in contrast to NASA's constant feed of Mars images available to the public. We have seen a few snaps from the surface, however, including a look at Zhurong's wheel tracks after if descended from the lander in May.  

The lack of images can be frustrating for space fans, so NASA's view of Zhurong's adventures on the red planet is a welcome addition to the sparse Tianwen-1 photo collection.

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