Chinese scientists hold out hope for silent rover Zhurong Mars

China’s Mars rover may be stuck, but scientists using data from the mission still hope the vehicle can reactivate and explore again.

Zhurong, part of China’s Tianwen 1 Mars mission, landed at Utopia Planitia in May 2021. The rover entered sleep mode in May 2022, allowing it to hibernate through winter in the northern hemisphere of the planet.

It was supposed to resume autonomous operations in December last year, around the time of the northern spring equinox of Mars, when temperatures and lighting conditions were more favorable for the solar-powered vehicle. . This does not happen.

Related: The latest news on China’s space program

However, Yi Xu, an associate professor at the Institute of Space Science at Macau University of Science and Technology, told (opens in a new tab) VICE World News that there may still be hope for Zhurong.

China has not commented on Zhurong’s status, but images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show the rover has been stationary for some time.

MRO images show that “it is covered in sand and dust, which definitely impairs its ability to convert sunlight into electricity,” Xu said.

“We have to wait, because now it’s spring, and later it would be summer season on Mars. Then it would get more sunshine, and the temperature would also rise,” Yi said. “When the battery is fully charged, the rover or instrument can work again.”

Zhurong has active means to clean his solar panels, but his period of inactivity in an area prone to dust storms has apparently impacted his ability to generate electricity and retain heat. Zhurong does not have a radioisotope heater unit, like other rovers, including Chinese lunar explorers Yutu, but instead has a pair of “windows” that allow a chemical called n-undecane to store thermal energy.

The rover was to wake up autonomously when two conditions are met. These are key components reaching over 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius) and power generation over 140 watts.

Xu co-authored a recent paper that used ground-penetrating radar data from Zhurong to build a picture of the layers immediately below the Martian surface and reveal complex stratification.

Whether Zhurong recovers or not, the mission has already exceeded its expected lifespan of three Earth months. The rover has also, like its orbiter companion Tianwen 1, achieved its main scientific goals.

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