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China's First Mission to Mars Seems to Be Struggling

China's inaugural Mars mission was scheduled to resume after a precautionary winter pause, but controllers can't seem to make contact with the rover or orbiter.

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The Chinese rover snapped this selfie of itself on Mars shortly after landing on the Red Planet.
The Chinese rover snapped this selfie of itself on Mars shortly after landing on the Red Planet.
Image: China News Service

China’s Zhurong rover went into hibernation mode in May 2022 to avoid the harsh winter season on Mars, but communication issues, both with the rover and orbiter, suggest something’s now very wrong with the mission.

The six-wheeled Martian rover was scheduled to wake up in late December, but it hasn’t been heard from since entering into its scheduled hibernation mode, unnamed sources told the South China Morning Post, as first reported by SpaceNews.

Zhurong landed on Mars on May 14, 2021 as China’s first Martian mission. The rover was sent to Mars with the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which relays data between the rover and ground controllers on Earth. About a year after roaming and investigating the Red Planet, the rover entered hibernation—a kind of low power safe mode—in anticipation of the Martian winter, when temperatures reach around -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) during the day and -148 F (-100 C) at night. The winter season on Mars also includes sand and dust storms, which block the rover’s solar panels and prevent it from collecting sunlight to generate power. For its own protection, Zhurong hunkered down in a dormant state for those chilly, dusty months on Mars.

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By late December, which marks the beginning of Martian spring, the rover was supposed to autonomously resume its activities. However, the China National Space Administration has yet to send out any updates regarding the rover, in what is an ominous sign. The rover’s solar panels could be covered by dust, reducing its ability to generate power and preventing it from turning back on, according to the SCMP’s sources. It’s worth noting that NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers are able to power through Mars’s winter season using a radioisotope power system.

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And it may not just be the rover that’s in trouble. The mission’s Tianwen-1 orbiter has also reportedly gone silent. Scott Tilley, professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, noted on Twitter that the radio signals between the ground station and Tianwen-1 indicate that mission controllers may have stopped trying to communicate with the orbiter after failing to achieve contact. This is unfortunate, as China planned to perform aerobraking tests in 2023 with Tianwen-1 in anticipation of a future Mars sample return mission.

It’s possible that the problem with the orbiter is related to the problem with Zhurong, but we’ll have to wait for China to finally say something official on the matter. In the event we don’t hear back from the rover and its orbital companion, China’s mission to Mars will still be deemed a success, as it was initially designed to last for three months on the Red Planet but managed to live on for over a year.

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More: China’s Zhurong Rover Captures Remarkable Sights and Sounds on Mars