Technology

China’s Historic Zhurong Rover May Have Gone Silent on Dusty Mars

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

The future of the China National Space Administration’s charismatic Zhurong Mars rover is uncertain. The small solar-powered rover went into hibernation in May 2022 due to an intense Martian dust storm. It was expected to wake up in December, but there’s been no confirmation it’s still functioning. 

The rover touched down on the surface of Mars in May 2021 as part of the Tianwen-1 mission, which also included an orbiter and lander. Andrew Jones, a journalist specializing in China’s space program, reported in SpaceNews on Monday that both the rover and orbiter appear to be in trouble and Zhurong may potentially be lost.

Details on the mission’s current status are sketchy, which isn’t unusual for China’s space program. South China Morning Post cited unnamed sources saying scientists were still waiting for a signal from the rover and hoped the Tianwen-1 orbiter could capture images from orbit. 

However, there may be issues with Tianwen-1 communications. Citizen scientist Scott Tilley tracks satellites and spacecraft communications. Tilley’s observations seem to show ground control struggling to connect with Tianwen-1.

Zhurong is located in a plains area called Utopia Planitia. The rover delivered an adorable selfie and traveled over a mile across the planet’s surface. The historic mission made China the only country besides the US to operate a rover on Mars.

Even if Tianwen-1 and Zhurong never get in touch with Earth again, the mission will still have been a success. The rover handily outlasted its original three-month life expectancy and got a mission extension. If dust is the ultimate culprit in its demise, it will be good company with NASA’s Opportunity rover and InSight lander. Mars is a tough place for a machine, especially if it needs sunlight to keep going.



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