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China space agency reckons Zhurong Mars rover has probably been done in by dust

Hopes it might wake during the Martian solstice, but not with much confidence

China has finally confirmed that its Zhurong Mars rover is inoperable, and may never again roll across the red planet.

The rover's chief designer, Zhang Rongqiao said in an interview with Chinese state media on Tuesday that a pile-up of dust had likely affected the vehicle's ability to generate power. He did not speculate whether this represents a final end for Zhurong.

Zhang said if dust accumulation exceeds 40 percent, the rover is designed to go into a dormant state.

It has been pointed out that active cleaning measures could revive the rover when the summer solstice arrives in July.

The six-wheeled explorer was thought to have failed since at least December 2022 when it didn't wake from the sleep mode it entered in May. Zhurong's slumber was intended to preserve power as winter arrived and the sun's rays on its solar panels weakened.

Hypotheses circulated in early January that the solar panels became coated in dust kicked up by winter storms, preventing the rover from collecting energy.

In late February, images released by NASA revealed the vehicle had been parked for months.

Zhurong launched in July 2020 aboard China's first interplanetary mission, Tianwen-1. It was designed to study Martian geology, mapping and analyzing the terrain while looking for materials useful to support future manned missions. It did that, with aplomb, for an entire year after it landed in May 2021.

Other missions to Mars have had similar fates, including NASA's Insight mission which was forced into early retirement after its solar panels became blanketed in dust and its batteries drained.

The rate at which Mars landers succumb to dust is testament to the success of the two rovers currently residing on Mars: NASA's Perseverance and Curiosity. Perseverance has been in operation for almost two years, and Curiosity has trundled around for over a decade. In fact, one of Curiosity's limitations has turned out to be not its power source, but the wear and tear on its wheels.

Curiosity uses a radioisotope power system to generate electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. It has two litium ion rechargeable batteries for when power demand temporarily exceeds the generator's output. ®

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