Chinese orbiter Tianwen-1 and the rover stopped communicating

(ORDO NEWS) — Both spacecraft, part of China‘s first interplanetary mission, are experiencing problems.

The Zhurong rover has been dormant on the Martian surface since May 18 last year and was scheduled to resume operation in December, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox.

However, no statements were made about establishing contact with the rover. The South China Morning Post reported Jan. 7, citing sources who did not wish to be named, that teams on Earth had not yet received a signal from Zhurong.

The Jurong rover landed in the Utopia Planita region of Mars in May 2021, but went into “hibernation” to survive the winter, when temperatures and solar radiation levels are too low for a solar-powered rover to operate.

The rover was expected to resume autonomous operation as soon as it could generate enough power from solar panels and when the temperature reached minus 15 degrees Celsius.

According to the Chinese lunar exploration program, Zhurong went into hibernation when local temperatures were around minus 20 degrees after the autumn equinox in late February.

After the spring equinox on December 26, conditions should already be more favorable. The axial tilt of Mars is about 25 degrees, which means that during its orbit around the Sun, it has similar seasonal variations to the Earth.

While there has been no official comment yet, the rover may have been affected by sandstorms in the area, which could reduce power generation. The Tianwen-1 orbiter noted storms in the landing area in March and April 2021.

Zhurong has active means to remove dust from its four butterfly wing solar arrays, but will not be able to perform this operation during hibernation. The solar panels also have an anti-dust coating and can be tilted to maximize light collection.

Zhurong had a primary life of three Earth months, but operated for just over one Earth year on the planet Utopia, traveling at least 1,921 meters south of the landing site.

During his long mission, he looked for geomorphological targets such as mud volcanoes.

With the help of ground penetrating radar, the rover obtained detailed information about the local layered interior and found evidence of relatively recent water activity in the area.

The landing of the rover was also used by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson as a warning to Congress about China’s competitive threat to US leadership in manned spaceflight.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter was tasked with assessing the situation in the area and attempting to contact the rover. However, according to SCMP, specialists are also experiencing problems obtaining data from the orbiter.

Late last year, Tianwen-1 was scheduled to conduct aerobraking tests in preparation for a sample return mission to Mars that could launch later this decade.

It is not known if tests were carried out that could have affected the orbiter. The Chinese space authorities have not yet commented on the situation.

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