HELSINKI — Images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal that China’s Zhurong rover remains stationary on the Red Planet as China remains silent on the status of its spacecraft.
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured images of the rover on March 11, 2022, a second on Sept. 8, 2022 and finally Feb. 7, 2023. The images were published Feb. 21 by the 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 the low solar radiation levels of winter in Mars’s Utopia Planitia region.
Zhurong was expected to autonomously resume activities around December, around the time of Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, when temperatures and light levels reached levels allowing the rover’s battery and solar arrays 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 Jan. 7, citing sources that do not wish to be named, that the mission team was yet to receive a signal from Zhurong.
The progression of the HiRISE images suggest that Zhurong may have accumulated a covering of Martian dust on its surface. This could impact the function of both its solar arrays and the pair of “windows” which allow a chemical called n-undecane to store heat energy during the day and release it during the night.
Zhurong does not carry a radioisotope heater unit—which are used by the country’s Yutu lunar rovers—instead using systems including n-undecane for heating and a coating of aerogel for insulation.
NASA’s Spirit rover in 2005 fortuitously encountered a dust devil that cleaned the solar panels of the spacecraft, improving its power generation. Such phenomena, along with improving solar radiation levels as summer approaches in the northern hemisphere, mean there could still be some hope of Zhurong reactivating.
MRO/HiRISE has previously imaged Zhurong on the surface, showing its landing area and shown tracks matching those of Chinese Zhurong drive maps.
Zhurong is part of the successful Tianwen-1 mission which launched in July 2020 as China’s first independent interplanetary exploration expedition. The mission put the Tianwen-1 spacecraft in 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 U.S., Soviet Union/Russia, the European Space Agency, India and the United Arab Emirates in successfully putting 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 lifetime of three Earth months but operated for just over one Earth year on the Martian surface before entering hibernation. It traveled at least 1,921 meters south from its landing site.
It had achieved its primary science objectives and was seeking out geomorphologic targets such as mud volcanoes during its extended mission.
Meanwhile the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which entered orbit around Mars two years ago Feb. 10, was operating well as of Jan. 10 according to the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), having also completed its primary science objectives.
Chinese state media published articles to mark the anniversary of the orbital insertion but did not touch on the current status of Zhurong. Tianwen-1 is expected to conduct aerobraking tests as part of preparation for a Mars sample return mission potentially launching later this decade.