Zhurong, China’s first rover on Mars, has not moved since September, according to NASA imagery released last month.
The rover went into hibernation on May 18 to ride out the planet’s harsh winter, where seasonal sandstorms swirl and temperatures can dip to as low as minus 190 degrees Fahrenheit. The solar-powered rover was expected to wake up around December, when weather conditions improve as Mars’ northern hemisphere enters springtime.
But images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released by the University of Arizona’s HiRISE Operations Center on Feb. 21 showed the rover has remained stationary between Sept. 8 and Feb. 7.
Based on the orbital images, “it’s covered by the sand and the dust, so it definitely hurts its ability to transform sunlight to electricity,” Yi Xu, an associate professor at the Space Science Institute at Macau University of Science and Technology, told VICE World News. Yi and her team have been analyzing radar data sent by Zhurong to study the evolution of Mars’ surface as compared to the moon.
To adapt to the notorious dust storms on Mars, Zhurong’s solar panels were designed like butterfly wings so dust could be blown away. It’s also equipped with a mechanism allowing it to flip its panels to remove accumulated debris, but this requires the rover to be on.
“We have to wait because now it’s spring and later, that’d be the summer season on Mars. Then it should receive more sunlight and the temperature also increases,” Yi said. “When the battery is fully charged, then the rover or the instrument may operate again.”
The China National Space Administration has remained tight-lipped about the status of its rover, even as it celebrated its Mars mission Tianwen-1’s second anniversary in orbit last month.
Zhurong is supposed to automatically resume operation when its energy level hits over 140 watts and the temperature of its components, such as its battery, rises above minus 59 degrees Fahrenheit, its research team said in September. But the South China Morning Post reported in January that Chinese scientists were still waiting for a signal from Zhurong and that sandstorms had hampered the rover’s ability to generate power with its solar panels.
Zhurong landed on Mars in May 2021, making China the first country after the U.S. to successfully deploy a vehicle on the Martian surface—a feat underscoring the huge strides it has made in space exploration in recent decades. With an expected lifespan of 90 days, it is largely considered to have fulfilled its mission.
One of its core goals was to look for evidence of water on Mars. According to Chinese state outlets, the rover had sent back 1,480 gigabytes of raw data by September, some of which lends weight to the hypothesis that an ancient ocean once existed on Utopia Planitia, the plain on the planet’s northern hemisphere where the rover landed.
Zhurong was also tasked with investigating the surface composition, regolith characteristics, and water-ice distribution of the planet. Using data from its ground-penetrating radars, Yi and her team observed shallow impact craters and slope structures on the martensite layer of Mars, which helped them understand the geological history of the planet’s northern plains.
It is not the first time Zhurong has gone quiet. In October 2021, it lost contact with earth for a month during a solar conjunction that jammed communication signals.
“We cared about Zhurong, but we have full confidence in it,” said Jin Shengyi, the deputy chief designer for Zhurong’s teleoperation subsystem from the China Academy of Space Technology, at the time. “When we designed it, we took all possible situations into account.”