China’s first Mars rover can sleep forever

China’s first Mars rover may not be able to restart after a longer-than-expected hibernation since last May, according to the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) Planetary Exploration of China (or Tianwen) program.

The Tianwen 1 mission was launched in July 2020, and the Zhurong rover landed on the surface of Mars on May 15, 2021. On May 18 last year, it went into sleep mode to save energy during the winter. It was supposed to wake up last December, but it didn’t.

“Our analysis shows that the rover has suffered from dust accumulation that has limited its ability to generate solar energy, resulting in insufficient electricity to restart itself,” said Zhang Ronqiao, chief designer of China Planetary Exploration.

“When the dust accumulation on the solar panels reaches 20%, the rover’s power generation capacity decreases,” Zhang said. “When it reaches 30%, the rover can only produce power when the sunlight is very strong. When it reaches 40%, it may not wake up again.

He said Zhurong has already operated on Mars for 358 sols (367 Earth days), beating its goal of 90 days.

A rock extractor used by a Chinese rover on the moon. Photo: Weibo

Tianwen 3, China’s next planetary exploration mission to Mars, will launch in 2028 and deliver samples to Earth in 2030 or 2031. If successful, it would be two to three years ahead of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Mars Sample Return Campaign, which will return rock samples to Earth in 2033.

According to the Tianwen 3 plan, the sampler (landing-ascent combination) and delivery (orbiter-return combination) will be launched separately.

Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Tianwen-1 mission, said the sampler will launch in December 2028, land on Mars in September 2029 and launch samples into Mars orbit in February 2030. He said that the supplier will leave in November 2028, will arrive. to Mars orbit in August 2029, receive samples and deliver them to Earth in November 2030.

In another plan, he said, the sampler will depart in May 2028, arrive at Mars in July 2030 and launch samples into the planet’s orbit in October 2030. The rover will depart in December 2028 and arrive in Mars orbit in September 2029, he said. , to receive samples and return to Earth in July 2031.

The second plan may help the Chinese rover avoid a sandstorm between September 2029 and April 2030 on Mars.

Jurong had operated on Mars for one year. Photo: CNSA

So far, Chinese scientists have not officially announced Zhurong’s retirement, as there is still a last hope. They said it’s possible the rover will receive strong summer sunlight on July 8 and generate enough energy to reboot itself.

Even if it can’t, it has already surpassed Sojourner, NASA’s first rover, which landed on Mars in July 1997 and operated for 92 sols (95 Earth days).

Jurong traveled 1,921 meters on Mars, while Sojourner ran about 100 meters.

NASA’s twin rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, landed separately on Mars in January 2004. Opportunity had amazingly operated on Mars for more than 14 years and traveled 45.16 kilometers before losing contact with Earth in August 2018.

Spirit had been operating on the planet for more than six years and had traveled 7.73 kilometers. It got stuck in a sand trap in late 2009 and ended in March 2010.

NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers are still operating on Mars. Landed in 2012, Curiosity has been on the planet for more than a decade and has traveled 29.27 kilometers.

Perseverance, also launched in July 2020 as Zhurong, has operated on Mars for more than two years and traveled 17.52 kilometers. Its Ingenuity mini-helicopter has already completed 51 successful flights.

Zhurong takes high-resolution images and sends them to Earth. Photo: CNSA

A Sichuan-based commentator said in an article published on Friday that it was impossible for persistence or ingenuity to offer help to Jurong.

“If Ingenuity can fly 51 times, can it help remove dust from Zhurong’s solar panels?” the writer says. “Practically, it cannot. They are not in the same district.

He says that since Ingenuity has only flown 10 kilometers, it cannot reach Zhurong, which is 1,800 kilometers away.

For comparison, the distance from the east coast of the United States to the west coast is about 1,958 kilometers.

Acknowledging the Chinese rover’s failure, Beijing also announced some good news about its Tianwen adventures earlier this week.

On Monday, the CNSA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences jointly released a full image of Mars. Between November 2021 and July 2022, the Tianwen 1 orbiter took 14,757 high-resolution color images of the planet’s surface, they said.

Full image of Mars Photo: CNSA and Chinese Academy of Sciences
Old Chinese village names are used to refer to 22 places on Mars. Photo: CNSA

The Paris-based International Astronomical Union has already approved the use of ancient Chinese village names to label 22 places on Mars, they said.

On Tuesday, a team of researchers at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan said the shape of Mars’ terrain suggests the planet has water, possibly in the form of ice, at its two poles. It said the study was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a scientific journal published by the American Geophysical Union.

CNSA also announced this week that it has recently seen more progress on its Tianwen 2 mission, which will launch in May 2025 to study co-orbital near-Earth asteroid 469219 Kao’oalewa, or 2016H03, or Earth’s so-called second moon. .

Read: What do the Moon and the South China Sea have in common?

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3

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