NASA Mars orbiter reveals China’s Zhurong rover hasn’t moved in months

HELSINKI — Images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal that China’s Zhurong rover remains stationary on the Red Planet while China remains silent on the status of the spacecraft.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took images of the rover on March 11, 2022, a second on September 8, 2022, and finally on February 7, 2023. The images were published on February 21 by HiRISE Operations Center

The images show that the solar-powered Zhurong – which landed in May 2021 – has not moved since at least September 2022. It had entered a planned hibernation state in May 2022 to ride out winter’s low solar radiation levels in the Mars Utopia Planitia region. .

Zhurong was expected to autonomously resume activities around December, around the spring solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, when temperatures and light levels reached levels that allowed the rover’s battery and solar panels to generate sufficient electrical power.

However, Chinese space authorities have not provided an update on the status of the rover. The South China Morning Post reported on January 7, citing sources who did not want to be named, that the mission team had yet to receive a signal from Zhurong.

The progression of the HiRISE images suggests that Zhurong may have accumulated a blanket of Martian dust on its surface. This could affect the function of both the solar panels and the pair of “windows” that allow a chemical called n-undecane to store heat energy during the day and release it at night.

China's Zhurong Mars rover images its own parachute from a distance of 30 meters, July 12, 2021.
China’s Zhurong images its own parachute from a distance of 30 meters, July 12, 2021. Credit: CNSA/PEC Credit: CNSA/PEC

Zhurong does not have a radioisotope heater – as used by the country’s Yutu lunar rovers – instead using systems including n-undecane for heating and a coating of airgel for insulation.

In 2005, NASA’s Spirit rover accidentally encountered a dust devil that cleaned the spacecraft’s solar panels, improving power generation. Such phenomena, along with improved solar radiation levels as summer approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, mean there may still be some hope for Zhurong to be reactivated.

MRO/HiRISE previously imaged Zhurong on the surface, showing the landing area and showing tracks that match Chinese Zhurong driving maps.

Zhurong is part of the successful Tianwen-1 mission that launched in July 2020 as China’s first independent interplanetary exploration expedition. The mission put the Tianwen-1 spacecraft into orbit around Mars and later saw Zhurong land in Utopia Planitia after a campaign to image and assess the target landing area.

Tianwen-1 saw China join the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, the European Space Agency, India and the United Arab Emirates to put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars. The Zhurong rover made China the second country to successfully operate a rover on the Red Planet.

Zhurong had a primary mission life of three Earth months, but operated for just over one Earth year on the Martian surface before entering hibernation mode. It traveled at least 1,921 meters south from the landing site.

It had achieved its primary science objectives and sought geomorphological targets such as mud volcanoes during its extended mission.

Meanwhile, the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which entered Mars orbit two years ago on February 10, was performing well as of January 10, according to the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), and has also completed its primary science objectives.

Chinese state media published articles to mark the anniversary of the orbital deployment, but did not touch on the current status of Zhurong. Tianwen-1 is expected to conduct aerobraking tests as part of preparations for a Mars test mission that could potentially be launched later this decade.

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