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China's Mars orbiter snaps striking shot of Red Planet's larger moon, Phobos

A photo of a potato-shaped moon with one large crater marked
Phobos, the largest of two natural satellites of Mars, as imaged by the Tianwen 1 orbiter. (Image credit: CNSA/PEC)

China's Tianwen 1 Mars orbiter has returned a stunning image of the Martian moon Phobos to mark the second anniversary of the mission's launch.

Tianwen 1 captured the photo with its high-resolution camera, the same instrument used to image the landing area for the mission's Zhurong rover. At the time, the Mars orbiter was 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) away from Phobos, which is the larger of the Red Planet's two moons

Tianwen 1 needed to alter its attitude — or orientation — to image Phobos, while also needing to select a precise moment during their respective orbits around Mars that would provide a relatively close approach and good lighting conditions from the sun.

Related: China's Mars orbiter snaps amazing selfies above Red Planet

The image provides a resolution of 160 feet (50 meters) per pixel, with some of Phobos's distinct linear grooves visible on the surface.

The image, released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Planetary Exploration of China (PEC) also notes Öpik Crater. The feature was named for Estonian astronomer and astrophysicist Ernst Öpik, who postulated the theory of a cloud of comets and icy objects way beyond Pluto, now known as the Öpik-Oort cloud

Tianwen 1 launched on July 23, 2020, and recently completed its primary science goals, including mapping the entire surface of Mars. It has returned a range of impressive images, including "selfies" taken by small, disposable spacecraft deployed for the purpose.

The orbiter journeyed to Mars along with the Zhurong rover, which landed in Utopia Planitia in May 2021. The solar-powered rover is currently hibernating, as it is winter in the northern hemisphere of Mars.

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Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI (opens in new tab).