NASA images from Mars show the Chinese rover hasn’t moved in months.
Chinese scientists are struggling to make contact, according to the South China Morning Post.
The Chinese rover, Zhurong, could be covered in dust and run out of energy, just like NASA’s InSight lander.
New NASA images reveal China’s first Mars rover, Zhurong, hasn’t moved in months, as reports said Chinese scientists are scrambling to reestablish contact and save the mission.
The photos, taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, show the rover was active earlier last year, moving between March and September 2022.
According to the South China Morning Post, Zhurong went into hibernation in May 2022 to await the planet’s freezing winter and harsh sandstorms. That’s standard practice — NASA also hibernates its Mars missions to conserve energy when sunlight is low.
But when Zhurong was supposed to wake up in December, scientists couldn’t make contact, according to the South China Morning Post.
The NASA orbiter captured images of the rover on Feb. 7, 2023; it doesn’t appear to have been moved since September.
It’s possible that China’s first attempt to explore the surface of Mars suffered the same fate as several NASA missions: dust blocking the sun.
Martian dust may have claimed yet another rover
Zhurong originally landed on the surface of Mars on May 15, 2021, with a mission to explore the vast Utopia Planitia region and search for ice water beneath volcanic rock.
It was China’s first Mars rover and was designed for a lifespan of just three months, according to the South China Morning Post, but remained operational.
An unnamed source told the Morning Post that it is “most likely that the sandstorms have seriously weakened Zhurong’s ability to use its solar panels to generate power.”
NASA’s Perseverance rover, currently on Mars, is nuclear-powered to avoid this problem. It does not need clean solar panels on which sunlight falls to work. It can rely on the energy generated by the radioactive decay of the plutonium it carries.
But NASA’s first-generation Mars rovers all relied on solar power. Gusts of wind can be useful for cleaning the dust off a robot’s solar panels, but the giant dust storms that sweep over Mars can block the sun for days and leave behind a layer of dust, completely covering solar panels.
That’s what happened to the Opportunity rover in 2018. It lost communication during a dust storm and never came back online.
More recently, in December, NASA declared the end of the InSight lander’s mission to Mars. Dust had covered the solar panels and depleted the robot’s energy below its operational level.
Indeed, that’s what the unnamed source told the South China Morning Post: “From a selfie taken days after Zhurong’s landing in 2021, we can see that the solar panels were very clean back then. Photos taken in January showed however, all the panels are covered with a layer of dust.”
“It’s not hard to imagine that after a rough sandstorm season, Zhurong is probably now completely covered in the reddish dust of Mars,” the source added.
China has not provided any updates on the status of its Mars rover. Zhurong is a key part of the country’s first interplanetary mission, which also launched a spacecraft into Mars orbit. Landing the rover was an incredible feat, but sustaining a robotic mission in the harsh conditions of the red planet’s surface is another matter.
Mars and the moon are popular targets for space missions, but landing rovers on the celestial bodies is a challenge few countries have risen to, Insider previously reported. In September 2019, India’s Vikram lunar lander crashed into the lunar surface after a failed soft landing attempt.
That came just months after the crash of the Israeli Beresheet lander. In both cases the landings failed on the final descent.
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