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China's Mars rover hibernates for a scarily long time

Zhurongs don't make a right and suggest the mission may not have survived winter

China’s Zhurong Mars rover may be struggling to emerge from sleep mode, a feat it was expected to accomplish around December 26th.

Zhurong went into hibernation in May 2022, a year after it landed on the red planet. The rover has been waiting for Mars' winter and attendant sandstorms to pass before resuming its exploration of the red planet.

But a report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) claims two sources have asserted the rover should have resumed running by now but has not re-established contact with mission control.

The news outlet claims claimed one source speculated that Mars’ winter storms have reduced Zhurong's ability to generate power by coating its solar panels with dust.

That's a plausible scenario as dust means less light reaches solar panels, and we know such problems have done in other Mars probes.

According to information published on the Chinese Academy of Science’s webpage, solar is the only source of energy for the rover. Zhurong has four butterfly-shaped panels to provide that energy.

According to CAS, when Zhurong is put to sleep, the electronic equipment is shut down as well.

“The solar energy previously collected will be converted into heat energy and stored to uniformly insulate the electronic equipment in the cabin, so as to solve the energy security problem after the rover encounters bad weather - and ensure that the Zhurong rover has enough energy to complete the autonomous awakening,” read the article, as translated from Chinese.

That autonomous awakening was set to occur when simultaneously the power level hit 140 watts and the temperature of key components rose above 15˚C.

According to SCMP, the Chinese space program planned to send its Tianwen-1 probe to observe and photograph the rover in an attempt to diagnose Zhurong’s failure. Unfortunately that probe is also having difficulty, in this case it is failing to make ground station communications.

Space-watcher Scott Tilley has observed Tianwen-1 making the sort of moves that could indicate it's trying to take a snap of Zhurong.

China’s National Space Administration has already declared Zhurong and the Tianwen-1 Mars Mission a success. The rover was expected to survive 90 Martian days but as of June 2022 had exceeded its mission paramters.

Among the Rover's accomplishments are almost 2 km of travel and spotting evidence of ancient flooding. The combined Zhurong and Tianwen-1 missions have amassed over 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.

Another of Zhurong’s greatest hits was an in- orbit relay communication test with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft that demonstrated the ability to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via the ESA spacecraft. ®

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