The silence of Zhurong
Written by Gabriel
The Chinese Mars rover, Zhurong, was supposed to go back into operation in December. Perplexing many, it didn’t.
Slightly less than two years ago, on May the 15th 2021, a spacecraft bearing the name Zhurong, after an old Chinese god of fire, reached the surface of Mars. It was the first Chinese rover to arrive there, making China the second country to successfully operate a rover on another planet, preceded only by the USA. Armed with six distinct instruments, it travelled through the planet’s rust-coloured scenery for approximately one year, traversing a distance of about two kilometres. However, due to a dust storm that had been heading in its direction, it was temporarily powered down on the 22nd of May 2022 by the China National Space Administration, to avoid any potential damage. This December, it was supposed to reawaken. It didn’t.
Photo: Zhurong, Nature.com
“It wouldn’t be surprising for the rover to fail to come out of hibernation because it is solar-powered, and there’s a long history of solar-powered landers and rovers on Mars running out of power.”
As of now, it’s not yet certain what has caused Zhurong’s unresponsiveness; however, there are several explanations as to what may have transpired. Most likely, it may be because the rover runs on solar power. According to Queensland University of Technology astrobiologist David Flannery, “It wouldn’t be surprising for the rover to fail to come out of hibernation because it is solar-powered, and there’s a long history of solar-powered landers and rovers on Mars running out of power.” Martian dust could have settled on its solar panels, leaving it unable to gain enough power to start working again.
Photo: Ground frost on Mars, Brittanica.com
Even if this marks Zhurong’s end, its journey through the northern Martian plain of Utopia Planitia certainly hasn’t been futile, as it’s made several considerable contributions to the exploration of outer space. Its most noteworthy find is evidence that parts of the Martian surface seem to have been flooded in the ancient past, possibly by water, based on radar images up to 100 metres below the surface of the planet. The underground sediments, which appear to have been carried there by massive floods about three billion years ago, certainly seem to imply it. However, there is also the possibility that the cause of the sedimental patterns may have been lava brought there by volcanic activity.
Utopia Planitia is thought to once have been an ancient ocean. Moreover, its sediments are the ideal place to look for signs of extraterrestrial life, if it was ever present on the planet. However, Zhurong has made no such discoveries yet.
The rover is only the beginning of China’s space-faring ambitions. They intend to launch yet another mission to Mars by 2028. l. Apart from that, there are plans to send a probe to Jupiter - which may or may not land on one of its moons, Callisto, as well as to send two spacecrafts to the edges of our Solar System, similar to the Voyager.
Past rovers on Mars have been able to operate years beyond their intended mission length. Even Zhurong itself had spent much more time than its planned three months before eventually being shut down. As such, if it ever happens to reawaken, it will still have a vast potential.
Brittanica.com, “Utopia Planitia,” https://www.britannica.com/place/Utopia-PlanitiaJones,
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https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/china-landing-rover-on-mars-in-high-stakes-mission Mallapaty, S. “What’s happened to China’s first Mars rover?” Nature,
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00111-3, Mallapaty, S. “China’s Mars rover finds hints of catastrophic floods” Nature, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03056-1