While the United States spied on China spying on the United States, watchful eyes didn’t stop on Earth — or even the space around it.
Over 100 million miles away from the planet, NASA‘s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has had more than a bird’s eye view of China’s Mars rover, Zhurong. A camera onboard the robotic U.S. spacecraft flying up to 250 miles above the red planet takes pictures of vast swathes of terrain. The instrument is capable of displaying features as small as a kitchen table(Opens in a new tab), according to the U.S. space agency.
On Tuesday the Twitter account for the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Experiment(Opens in a new tab), or Hirise camera, posted three side-by-side images of the Chinese rover from above. They show the land vehicle has not budged in the past five months. The team managing the camera, based at the University of Arizona, said they take pictures of China’s rover to “track its progress and monitor the surface for changes.”
In images taken between Sept. 8, 2022, and Feb. 7, the rover — seen as a dark bluish dot — hasn’t changed positions.
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The spaceview of China’s seemingly stalled Mars mission comes at a time Americans have become acutely aware of Chinese surveillance from up above their own country. About two weeks ago, the nation grew concerned that it was being watched when a giant Chinese balloon floated overhead. The military eventually shot it down, along with three smaller balloons days later.
Then, the Pentagon released a photo(Opens in a new tab) Wednesday of a U.S. spy plane pilot looking down on the big balloon from the cockpit. The image was taken a day before the balloon was downed, according to the Defense Department.
The Defense Department released this image two weeks after a Chinese balloon floating over the United States was shot down.
Credit: US Department of Defense / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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NASA is a civilian agency, not an extension of the military. The high-resolution orbiter camera is used for science, to observe changes to dust-covered areas near Mars land explorers. The blast zones around landing sites or vehicle tracks can help scientists(Opens in a new tab) figure out what the surface materials are like.
But the orbiter images are yet another reminder that anyone could be watching almost anywhere at any time, and yes, even in other worlds.
It’s unclear what the status is of China’s Mars rover, Zhurong.
Credit: Chinese National Space Administration
Zhurong was expected to continue exploring Mars in December after a planned hiatus(Opens in a new tab) during the Martian winter, according to a Space News report on Feb. 21. The Chinese military-run space program has not provided any public information about the mission’s status.
China sent the rover to Mars as part of its Tianwen-1 mission. Since landing in May 2021, Zhurong has been studying a plain in the northern hemisphere of the red planet called Utopia Planitia. Chinese scientists picked that region because it’s close to suspected ancient shorelines. There, the rover could hunt for evidence of water or ice.
Using ground-penetrating radar, the rover has found shallow craters and other geologic features. Mission scientists published images(Opens in a new tab) of the Martian subsurface in the journal Geology earlier this month. The paper does not indicate when exactly the rover instruments captured the images. The team did not see evidence of water or ice in the top 16 feet of soil.