Has Mars claimed another space robot?

In 2021, China earned a place in the Martian history books as it became the second nation to touch down on the Red planet. Now, the star of that mission, a rover called Zhurong, may be in trouble. 

Reports out of China say the rover has yet to wake up from its planned hibernation. 

In this image released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on Saturday, May 22, 2021, a landing platform and the surface of Mars are seen from a camera on the Chinese Mars rover Zhurong. China’s first Mars rover has driven down from its landing platform and is now roaming the surface of the red planet, China’s space administration said Saturday. (CNSA via AP)

The rover, along with a lander, makes up China’s first interplanetary mission called Tiawen 1. After touching down on Utopia Planitia, a massive lava plain in Mars’ northern hemisphere, Zhurong conducted a host of science activities before it was scheduled to hibernate during the Martian winter. 

Typically, spacecraft on Mars “sleep” through the winter in order to reserve power and help withstand the harsh winter conditions. Zhurong entered a dormant stage in May 2022, and was expected to wake up in December. However, the rover has failed to phone home. 

So far nothing official has been released from the Chinese space agency, but the South China Morning Post published a report on Jan. 7th, saying that anonymous sources say the rover still hasn’t made contact. 

Mars is a harsh and barren world, with an established track record of killing robots with its temperatures that reach well below freezing and frequent dust storms.

NASA’s beloved twin Mars Exploration Rovers, best known as Spirit and Opportunity, both succumbed to the elements while on the red planet. 

NASA’s Mars InSight lander, which was designed to study the planet’s interior, bid Earth farewell in December after a 4-year mission, as the dust layer on its solar panels grew thick enough that it could no longer harvest the energy it needed to operate. 

NASA’s newest rovers — Curiosity and Perseverance — have managed to remain in operation thanks to their onboard nuclear power sources. Zhurong had tricks of its own to help it survive on Mars: self-cleaning solar arrays. 

However, the cleaning mechanisms couldn’t operate while the robot was hibernating. 

China’s eyes in the sky, the Tianwen-1 orbiter, noted sand storms in the vicinity of Zhurong around the time the robot entered hibernation. These storms could have easily reduced the energy levels the robot was able to produce with its solar arrays. And with its self-cleaning system not working, dust and sand could have built up on the arrays. 

Both Spirit and Opportunity went through close calls like this during their respective missions. They would be slow to wake up, and just as NASA was ready to count them out, they’d wake up. The same could be true here. As the temperatures continue to warm up on Mars, the rover could build up its power sources. 

In September, Chinese space officials announced that Zhurong would wake up when two conditions were met: it needed to generate more than 140 watts of power and temperatures had to be higher than 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius).

Reports from NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is located slightly south of Zhurong, reports that Martian temperatures are barely above that threshold and since Zhurong is located further north, it still may not be warm enough yet for it. 

Will Zhurong wake up or has Mars claimed another rover? Only time will tell. Either way, the mission is already considered a success.

Tags Mars rover Zhurong
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