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New NASA imagery reveals that 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, captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, show the rover was operating earlier last year: It moved between March and September 2022.
According to the South China Morning Post, Zhurong went into hibernation in May 2022 to wait out the planet’s freezing winter and harsh sandstorms. That’s standard practice — NASA hibernates its Mars missions, too, to conserve energy when sunlight is low.
But when Zhurong was supposed to wake up in December, scientists couldn’t make contact, according to South China Morning Post.
The NASA orbiter captured imagery of the rover on February 7, 2023; it appears to have not moved since September.
It’s possible that China’s first attempt to explore the Martian surface has met the same fate as several NASA missions: dust blocking out the sun.
Mars dust may have claimed yet another rover
Zhurong originally landed on Mars’ surface on May 15, 2021, with a mission to explore the vast Utopia Planitia region and search for ice water underneath volcanic rock.
It was China’s first Mars rover and was designed to have a lifespan of only three months, per South China Morning Post, but remained operational.
One unnamed source told the Morning Post that it’s “most likely the sandstorms have seriously weakened Zhurong’s capacity to use its solar panels to generate power.”
NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is currently operating on Mars, runs on nuclear power to avoid this issue. It doesn’t need clean solar panels with sunlight hitting them to operate. It can rely on the energy generated by the radioactive decay of the plutonium it’s carrying.
But NASA’s first-generation Mars rovers all relied on solar power. Gusts of wind can be helpful, clearing the dust off of a robot’s solar panels, but the giant dust storms that rage across Mars can block out the sun for days and leave a layer of dust in their wake, completely covering solar panels.
That’s what happend to the Opportunity rover in 2018. It dropped out of communication during a dust storm and never came back online.
More recently, in December, NASA declared the end of its InSight lander’s mission on Mars. Dust had coated the solar panels and depleted the robot’s energy below operational levels.
Indeed, that’s what the unnamed source told South China Morning Post: “From a selfie taken days after Zhurong landed in 2021, we can see its solar panels were very clean back then. However, pictures taken the following January already showed the panels coated with a layer of dust.”
“It’s not hard to imagine that after a harsh sandstorm season, Zhurong is now probably all covered in the reddish Martian dust,” the source added.
China has not given any updates on the status of its Mars rover. Zhurong is a key part of the nation’s first interplanetary mission, which also inserted a spacecraft into Martian orbit. Nailing the rover landing was an incredible feat, but maintaining 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 nations have met, Insider has previously reported. In September 2019, India’s Vikram moon lander crashed into the moon’s surface after a failed attempt at a soft landing.
That came just months after the crash of Israel’s Beresheet lander. In both cases, the landings failed during the final stages of descent.