Is There A Problem With China’s Tianwen-1 Mars Satellite And Rover?

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The rover, one half of China’s first interplanetary expedition, may be lost on the Martian surface after waking up from a winter slumber. The Zhurong Mars rover went into hibernation on the red planet’s surface on May 18, 2018, and was scheduled to wake up in December, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox.

However, there has been no report of success in communicating with the rover. Unnamed sources told the South China Morning Post on January 7 that Earth-based teams had not yet received a signal from Zhurong. During the winter of Mars, when temperatures and solar radiation are too low for the solar-powered Zhurong rover to function, the rover went into sleep in May 2021. Once it generates enough energy from solar power and temperatures rise to roughly – 15 degrees Celsius, the rover is scheduled to start operations on its own.

As reported by the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, Zhurong went into hibernation after the fall equinox in late February, when average temperatures dropped to roughly minus 20 degrees. With the arrival of the vernal equinox on December 26, conditions should have improved. Due to its same axial tilt to Earth’s (25 degrees), Mars experiences the same seasonal changes as our home planet as it travels around the sun.

While there has been no official word, it’s possible that the rover’s energy production was hindered by nearby sandstorms. The Tianwen-1 orbiter detected bad weather in the location of the landing in March and April of 2021. Zhurong’s four butterfly-wing solar arrays can be kept clean by active mechanisms, although the alien would be unable to do so while in hibernation. The arrays may be tilted and include an anti-dust coating to improve their light gathering efficiency.

Zhurong was only designed to be in space for three months on Earth, but it ended up being active on Utopia Planitia for more than a year and making it at least 1,921 meters south of its landing spot. During its prolonged mission, it was looking for geomorphologic targets like mud volcanoes. The rover has detected indications of recent aqueous activity and provided deep insights into the local stratified subsurface using its ground-penetrating radar. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also used the rover landing to warn Congress about China’s danger to American leadership in human spaceflight.

Meanwhile, the Tianwen-1 orbiter is looking about and trying to make contact with the rover to have a better idea of what’s going on. However, SCMP reports that teams are also experiencing issues while trying to get data from the orbiter.

In order to be ready for a Mars sample return mission that may launch later this decade, the Tianwen-1 was supposed to do aerobraking experiments towards the end of last year. Irrespective of whether or not the experiments have been run, their effects on the orbiter remain unclear. Nobody from China’s space agency has issued a statement yet.

It was originally the Tianwen-1 orbiter’s job to evaluate the suitability of potential Zhurong landing sites. During the original mission phase of the rover’s operation, it served largely as a communications relay for Zhurong before shifting its emphasis to its own research goals.

By June of 2022, it had mapped Mars’ surface using a medium-resolution camera and accomplished the objectives set for its six research packages. China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter and Zhurong rover will arrive to Mars together in February 2021, after their launch in July 2020. In 2021, when Earth and Mars were on different sides of the sun, both Tianwen-1 and Zhurong went into a standby mode, cutting off all connections. Around 2025, China hopes to launch Tianwen-2, a mission to both return samples from near-Earth asteroids and rendezvous with comets in the main belt.